Short fiction is short. I know, that’s not an earth shattering revelation. But when I’m writing short stories it’s almost a mantra. Almost like a vertically challenged version of Keep It Gay from The Producers.
Maintaining depth and progressing the plot while being economical with words is really really hard. I’ve often heard it said that when writing short your words have to multi-task; and it’s true that they do. But I’ve found that there are a few little tricks that can, depending on the story, maintain depth without adding to the length.
Sticking to One Point of View:
It’s simple math. It takes time, and words to introduce each character to the reader. The fewer characters your story has, the fewer words there will be. By sticking to one point of view you can use the words that you would have spent on developing another character on delving a little deeper into the one. Or if you’ve already delved deep into the character’s mind you can use this trick to cut down the overall length.
No Room in the Wings:
When I was still acting, every theater I performed in had space issues backstage. Some of them had fairly large wings but once you added the moving set pieces — some of which were quite large — furniture, 10-20 actors, props, the stage manager and their crew, and dressers there was barely enough room for air. Even Noah would be hard pressed to fit all of that into such an ark.
Often the solution to this is to do the play with a smaller cast and crew. Some of the chorus and supporting cast members are given two, sometimes three minor roles to play. One of the dressers might double as a stage hand. The stage manager might help move set pieces. It can be a bit crazy and hectic but really it’s an efficient use of resources. There’s never a dull moment. Everyone is busy.
I do realize that it’s not that easy to make characters play multiple roles like that. Not obvious roles anyway. If your protagonist needs a foil to make them more likable then why can’t their best friend play that part too? It’s also possible to trim a few side characters whose presence doesn’t move the plot.
Writing in First Person:
I know some of you cringed. Believe me, I LOVE writing in third. But first person when done well can open up a character to the readers. Part of this I think is because of the word I. I believe that it makes everything that happens to the viewpoint character more personal. It may only be a subconsciously but that’s enough. Should you write all of your short stories in first person? Heck, no. If you feel it’s going to be better in third then write it in third. But if it’s the kind of story where you want the reader to really feel the character’s plight then try writing it in first person.
I’m not talking about clever quips or prose. I’m talking about the associations that certain words have. For example: Lisa walked through the neighborhood. Vs. Lisa walked through the ghetto. The first one is pretty neutral and nondescript. The second brings an image of dilapidated buildings and cracked sidewalks to the reader’s mind. It also makes the reader concerned for Lisa’s safety since there’s always danger lurking in ghettos. All of that just by changing one word. Not only is it a more specific word, it has a negative connotation that gives is extra power.
By having an understanding of the imagery, and associations that you won’t find in a dictionary you can use those words to greater effect. It’s hard, and it takes a good deal of study so it’s definitely a skill to develop over time.
These aren’t hard and fast rules. They simply tricks that I’ve found useful. It takes some practice, and possibly a few drafts to really get the hang of it but once mastered they can definitely add depth to your short fiction.