Writing Mistakes, Writing Techniques, and Making Your Words Count
Novels and short stories both require similar techniques: strong character development, clean, concise prose that keeps readers engaged, strong plot, and more. But if you’ve gotten some practice with novel writing and want to take a crack at short story writing, you’ll realize pretty quickly that short stories rely on a different set of writing strengths.
As a reader for Farside Review and Sepia Journal, I’ve had to read a lot of short stories and flash. (I’ve also had to read manuscripts, but that’s another article). One thing I can tell you right off the bat: there’s a lot of work that I’ve had to reject because the story was solid but it fell prey to the mistakes below. It was almost there, but it just fell short! But these are easy fixes. So here are some of the best things you can do to create a great short story.
Cut Out Characters (Yes, Really)
Wow, that’s major, I hear you say, but hear me out. When I took a class on writing short stories Dr. Sarah Burton, one of the first things I learned about crafting short works is character introduction in a short story. Basically, she said that there should be as few characters as possible. You might be wondering how that works. Of course there’s no specific number of characters you need to include to make your story perfect. But your main focus is the story, not the characters. In a novel, you have the time to describe a character’s appearance, their mannerisms, their goals and their feelings. In short stories, you don’t have the room to add as many details.
But if you want to make your characters memorable, some details are needed. If you only focus on a couple characters, there’s less time to take introducing more characters and more time letting your reader get to know them as the story progresses. You can then put more focus on what happens, on the story itself. This is especially true if your plot follows the classic incident to climax outline, where events and how your characters develop in them are key. Like I said, this isn’t true for all short stories. Some kinds of stories, like slice of life, should focus more on the characteristics of the characters and how they go through the specific moment you’re writing about. But with short stories, many times less is more.
Make the Few Words You’re Allowed Count
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass” – Anton Chekhov
“But Emma,” I hear you say after you read this quote, “Telling sometimes uses fewer words! And I can’t go over the word limit! It has to be SHORT after all.” OK, I use this quote because writers will talk about showing and not telling, and this is just as true for a short piece as a longer one. Don’t sacrifice good description for convenient telling! Too often when writers want to get to the point of something, they give simple explanations, and the story moves along. They think that’ll be enough to keep readers invested in such a short span. But readers can’t engage with a story that doesn’t engage with them. You CAN show what’s happening even in a short scene with minimal wording. Think of the Chekov quote. “The moon is shining” is simple and short, but why should readers care that the moon is shining? If you describe “light on broken glass,” there’s an immediate air of mystery. What happened? What caused this? Infuse that mystery into the words you’re allowed. Make it all count.
Cut Everything Down and then Some
After telling you to make your words count, now I’m saying to get rid of it? Yes, I do mean (pretty much) everything. Put that description and showing in, but if you find it’s not completely central to the focus of your scene, cut it out. Write about that glint in the moon, then cut it if you’re supposed to be talking about how your character is just trying to get a midnight snack. Describe a character’s appearance, then get rid of whatever part of her expression that doesn’t convey horror if she’s supposed to be witnessing a car accident from the sidewalk.
You have the space to put lots of (relevant) details in a longer work, but short stories are like little packages that you’re giving to a reader. You want to pack in only the best stuff out of the good you might have gotten. If you recognize that something doesn’t belong, that it doesn’t have much to do with what you’re talking about, or it’s just irrelevant to the plot completely, throw it out. Don’t waste your time. Keep everything flowing on the same track.
This last one is probably the most important because this is where I’ve noticed writers panic. They psych themselves out when they look at the word count, believing that they can’t say the same things in a short story that they have the time to say in a novel. It immediately becomes a mind game of “How do I make sure the reader understands what I’m saying?”
That’s when they start preaching. Too many times I’ve seen it where, after crafting a setting, some characters, and going through the plot, the story then ends with a mini sermon that wraps up what the author’s thoughts about the themes of the piece are. Either that, or the main voice of the piece, such as the narrator or the main character, frequently takes the reader aside to present them with their thoughts on the situation, or their thoughts on the work’s themes that they’re also grappling with as a character. In every case, it veers the story off course.
In a good story, what the author is trying to say shines through the characters and the events of the plot. Themes like love, courage, suffering, are all things readers can recognize, and they are all things that characters and plot can convey to them. You don’t need to go about of your way to make sure readers understand what you’re trying to say by explaining those themes for them. Everything else in the story is supposed to do that. And you shouldn’t act vicariously through your characters either. They need to develop and figure things out just like your readers need to figure things out. You wouldn’t expect to read through a novel, then have the end of it being all the characters sitting down and having a philosophical discussion about what the novel was talking about. End the story like you would any other story. Get out of your own head, and let the characters and story speak for themselves.
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2 thoughts on “How to Write a Good Short Story”
This was fantastic! So much of this can be applied to multiple facets of creative writing!
Thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed reading it.