So this is a request I’ve been getting from a couple people: how do you write short stories? The truthful answer, of course, is that I don’t actually know.
There are no real guidelines for writing short stories, but I think I can at least display what I know of them, and hopefully it will help some of the people wondering. I can’t give any enormous insights, and I definitely can’t say anything that no one has ever said before me, but I hope you find this post useful.
First, the definition: a short story is a story that has anywhere from 1 to 7,000 words. There are subsets of short stories, of course, such as flash fiction or micro fiction, but I’ll just encompass them all here as best I can. My general target for short stories is 2,000 words.
As stories, short stories will include all of the fundamental parts of a story: plot, character, and setting. However, all will have to be done in a shorter fashion. For instance, you can’t describe every part of your amazing fantasy world in the space of a short story. If you did, there wouldn’t be room for characters or plot. You also can’t get very deep into character. Neither can you get very complex with your plot. Everything in writing is a sort of trade-off, but with short stories you’ve really got to know what you want to do.
The general guideline for this is to take one plot element (one plotline, such as revenge or coming of age), one main character (two at the most), and one interesting setting element. In a novel, you might take five or six plot lines, five major characters, and explore ten or more setting elements. In a short story, you just don’t have time. Restrict yourself to something small. (If you find that your story is going on too long, cut another element. If you don’t want to or can’t cut another element, write it as a novel.)
Another tip for keeping short stories short, however, is to cut down on showing. Yes, show don’t tell is a huge writer advice thing– but sometimes you just have to tell instead of showing. You don’t have time in a 2k story to write a 200 word description of the light filtering through the treetops. That’s 10% of your story you just wasted. Skip the showing and tell– but do it artfully, so that it doesn’t take away from your style. (In other words, don’t make it into bad writing. Cut what you can.)
Start as close to the climax of the story as possible– backstory is able to be told (although don’t do too much of it). Make sure every part of the story is exciting.
But that’s enough technical stuff. The really fun part of writing a short story is experimenting.
I, for instance, write almost constantly in third person. If I want to experiment with a new character voice that requires first person, I don’t want to just start a new novel– if I didn’t like the voice, I would be stuck with it for another fifty thousand words. No, I do a short story.
For instance, I wrote An Unfortunate Existence because I wanted to write about a rechargeable battery. No novel would support that kind of storytelling. Another example is Too Late (my personal favorite). It has no exposition, only dialogue. It was difficult to write, keeping track of who’s talking as I flipped back and forth from researching time zones to writing the story, but I enjoyed doing it. Also, it’s about two godlike beings– I didn’t want to do any worldbuilding and actually describe these beings, so I left out all the exposition.
None of this would work in longform storytelling. A thick book of complete dialogue? No one would sit through that. (I once tried to read a story told through poetry, marked as a thriller for some reason, and couldn’t get through it. Two or three stanzas, I could stand, but an entire book was too much.) A short story is the perfect playground for new techniques. Try out only dialogue, or only exposition. Make a character likable in 15 seconds and then kill him, just for fun. Write a horror story, or tell about a crime through the villain’s eyes. It doesn’t matter what you do– just try it out for a couple thousand words, then wrap it up and decide whether you want to do a novel like that.
Short fiction is a playground. There are no hard and fast rules. Condensing a story into two thousand words is great practice for controlling the length of a longform story, but there are some stories that need to be told through seventy thousand words. It’s your choice, but if you go for short fiction, remember to have fun.