WU! Workshop: The Short Story
By D. A. Ratliff
“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” ― Edgar Allan Poe
The short story evolved in the 19th Century as a result of the changing population in America. British novelists published chapters of their novels in serial form in newspapers and then published the entire novel. American novelists began to circulate their novels as serials as well until the population began to migrate from city to city. Serializing a novel for a paper that changes readership often was ineffective. Publishers who needed story content for their newspapers commissioned shorter complete stories, and the short story was born.
Commercialized at first, interest in these stories diminished with the advent of the motion picture. Short stories as we know them today are more literary and not as widely read. Fewer outlets for publishing exist, but the last few years have seen an increased interest in the format. Writing groups are publishing anthologies, and literary and national magazines offer short stories.
“A short story is a sprint, a novel is a marathon. Sprinters have seconds to get from here to there and then they are finished. Marathoners have to carefully pace themselves so that they don’t run out of energy (or in the case of the novelist — ideas) because they have so far to run. To mix the metaphor, writing a short story is like having a short, intense affair, whereas writing a novel is like a long rich marriage.” ― Jonathan Carroll
The question often asked is, how does a short story differ from a novel?
The clever answer is that they are shorter, albeit a somewhat obvious answer. Writer’s Digest, a well-known magazine and online writing site, defines a short story as ranging from 1,500 to 30,000 words. However, there is a considerable discrepancy regarding short-story word count between ‘experts.’ If submitting to a publication or contest, always check the stated guidelines.
Length, however, is not the only variance. A short story is structured differently. To create an effective short story, you need to simplify and amplify.
Let’s look at the components of a short story.
Yes, the character. While you will have secondary characters in your story, the conflict, the goal, the action, and focus should be on one character. Keep all other characters to their specific roles to move the story along. Not to say that you cannot develop those secondary characters but do so only in the context of the plot.
You need to develop your main character quickly. It is imperative to establish a connection between your reader and character from the beginning as you would in a novel. Being as concise as possible, give as many traits, positive and negative, physical or personality, as needed to paint a believable image in the minds of your readers. You can still complete a story arc but with fewer steps.
The goal of any writer is to gain the attention of your reader from the first word. That is not always an attainable goal but at least have their attention in the first paragraph or two. In a short story, the quicker you get to the action, the better. Open with movement, a vivid scene that puts your reader into the story immediately or something compelling about your main character.
A short story should have one plot defined and focused on your main character. There is no room for sub-plots to be incorporated into a short story. You need to keep the conflict, action, and goal faced by your character at the center of attention.
While you may have several themes that you wish to convey in a novel, love, friendship, pessimism, hopelessness or hope, or justice, among others, only include one theme in a short story. As with your characters, keep the structure simple and amplify your words.
The Constraints and Pluses in Short Stories
- The obvious constraint in a short story is the number of words available to tell your tale. There is little room for backstory or details that you have some leeway to include in a novel. This leads to a plus in that you are forced to be cognizant of finding the precise words to use, such as strong action verbs and the fewest number of words to convey a thought, giving you experience in word selection and editing.
- Telling a story is not as effective as showing the action, and short stories provide an excellent experience for you to master the art of showing what is happening. Replacing dialog tags with action beats will save extraneous words and help create the show that you need.
- Learning to craft a short story will help with structuring stronger chapters in a longer work.
Whether you are intending on publishing your short stories independently, in an anthology, through a publication, in a contest, or for your enjoyment, by following these tips, you will create a well-crafted story.