Tag Archives: Short stories

Write Short Stories, Not Small Stories

As a dyed in the wool novelist, I’ve had to work hard to learn to write short stories. My early attempts always came off as… flat. To fix this problem, I experimented with character, with plot, with setting, and even dabbled some with poetic prose. However, nothing I tried made my stories come to life. I would eventually learn that my problem wasn’t with any of those aspects of writing, though all would improve over the years as I practiced my craft. The real issue was with my fundamental understanding of what actually makes a story powerful.

All stories, no matter their length, get their power from manipulating their readers’ emotions. As David Farland taught me, readers are seeking an emotional exercise when they pick up a book. It’s why we organize our bookstores based on the emotions we seek to satisfy. Characters, setting, plot, and prose are all vehicles for establishing reader empathy and then using that connection to twist the heart strings.

In longer works, we have the luxury of taking our time to build an emotional connection. That room to grow is what allows us to hit many different emotional beats over the course of a novel. However, when writing a short story, you need to go straight for the feels. By deciding early on what emotional impact you are aiming for, you are able to ensure that everything works towards those big emotional punches.

Just because we are writing a short story doesn’t mean that we are writing a simple story. We still need memorable characters, sexy settings, and plenty of conflict and change. There must be a beginning, a middle, a climax, and a denouement. We can’t sacrifice any of those elements in the name of saving word count. Nor are we writing small stories. Rather, the best short fiction tackles big emotions, big problems but in a shorter format. I like to think of it as a distillation of story rather than a reduction in word count. Like a good whiskey, a work of short fiction will retain all the elements of its precursor, but in a more potent form.

As is often true, the best way to learn how to write powerful short stories is to study the work of masters. In the case of short fiction, I can think of few better and more accessible than the writers at Pixar. They regularly turn out four or five minute animated features that are not only complete stories, but emotionally satisfying as well. In fact, this track record is one of the main reasons I’d go see just about any new Pixar movie. One of the most potent works of short fiction they’ve published is the first ten minutes of the full length movie, Up. While it was designed to be a prologue to Carl and Russell’s story, those ten minutes have been consistently rated as Pixar’s best short. Below, I’ve embedded the second half of that sequence. But be warned, it’s a tear jerker.

Take a minute to grab a tissue and then we’ll break this sequence down. Pixar spends a little over the first minute showing us the story of a happy couple. They’re married, fix up an old house, and have a pleasantly domestic life. Their introduction as characters is extremely relatable because it resonates with many of the audiences’ own desires and/or experiences. Many of us want to find love, like they did, and live a happy life, like they clearly do. At time 1:07, the characters begin their first try/fail cycle in their pursuit of a “happily married life.” They want to have children. End of act 1.

Pixar spends the next 17 seconds building the baby anticipation before hitting us with the first emotional punch. Without resorting to a single word, the writers tell us that not only did these characters fail to have a child, but it isn’t going to happen. Then they do something critical. Instead of rushing on to the next try/fail cycle, the writers take the time to drive their point home. They show the characters in pain, and in so doing we experience their sense of grief alongside them. However, the story isn’t done.

At a 1:46, Ellie and Carl decide that their infertility won’t get in the way of their “happily married” life-goal. This builds empathy because people who suffer and then pick themselves back up are admirable. They decide to live out their childhood dream of going to Paradise Falls. This is their second try/fail cycle.

As Ellie and Carl work to save up the money they need to travel, life keeps getting in the way. Years pass and they eventually forget about their dream for a time. That is, until Carl rediscovers the goal one day and goes to the trouble to arrange everything as a surprise for his wife. Try/fail cycle #2 ends in success, right? Well, no. Too much time has passed and Ellie is now too sick to go. Act 2 ends at time 3:26.

The climax of this story is Ellie’s death at time 3:55. In the remaining 24 seconds, we experience Carl’s melancholy and sense of loss along with him in the denouement. We see his emotional state in the emptiness of the church and his return to a dark home. We as the audience know that the movie is just beginning, but it feels like an emotionally satisfying, bitter-sweet ending as well.

Pixar is able to tell a complete, romantic tragedy story arc in four minutes and twenty seconds of film because they didn’t try to tell a small story. They didn’t pull any emotional punches, nor did they leave any critical story elements out. Rather, their skill allowed them to know how to quickly establish audience empathy, and then play on that empathy with emotional highs and lows. They reached into our hearts and gave our heartstrings a good, firm tug. In so doing, they told a big story in a small space.

Adding Depth Without Adding Words

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.

Wordplay:

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.

 

Kim May

Write a Short Story? I’d Rather Floss a Chicken’s Teeth!

Write a short story? I’d rather floss a chicken’s teeth! That’d be much easier.chicken3-240x240

I found myself facing that problem after writing six novels. I couldn’t wrap my head around a shorter piece of work. Everything I tried I sounded like an outline for a novel.

Books on outlining didn’t help. Workshops provided little insight. Critique groups, well, I could help someone to better tell their story, heck, I’d even edited an acclaimed anthology, but I couldn’t tell one myself.

How could I overcome this block?

The problem was, I needed a break from novel writing and I really wanted to know what eluded me about this form. I followed this four step process and I learned how to write a short story:

1) Read short stories, not novels. By reading short stories I learned what forms and genres I really liked and disliked. There’s no point in trying to write in a genre or with a style that doesn’t speak to you.

2) Choose a genre which speaks to you. For example, I love some literary style authors and I love science fiction stories. Literary style I can read but I can’t figure out the voice. With science fiction I understand the voice and the genre, but I’m not as adept as I’d like to be with the science. Hence, I don’t have the confidence to write it. How did I learn this about myself? Check out point number three …

3) Retell the stories that interest you. Be aware of style, plot, character and tropes common to the genre. That’s how I figured out if I had the desire, the passion to write certain stories. When I retold a story, I paid close attention to the plot and how it unfolded. I had to be aware of the tropes. Most importantly, I had to feel the voice and I had to feel the passion for the genre. Once you’ve discovered what stories energize and excite you, the final step is easy.

4) Now, write an original story in the genre and voice that excites you.

That’s it. It’s that easy.

Should you publish or submit a retold story? That’s another matter. Issues of public domain arise and rightly so. Some stories I deleted because my intent was only to learn from them. Others, even if there are no public domain issues, may be published in the future but with full disclosure as to the source of inspiration.

Where did I finally find my voice? With fables and fairy tales and people’s stories of old. I love it. The most curious thing I learned was that it wasn’t about setting for me for I’ve set my stories in worlds of fantasy, science fiction, and yes, there’s even a literary one or two! My real journey was to find my story telling voice.

The cheat of the matter was this: later on, I recognized that my writing voice had always been with me. I had heard it, felt it even and I had tried to squeeze it into forms and stories that didn’t suit it. That was the heart of the problem. That is the heart of this journey – to hear the voice within you and to find the form that fits it.

Why You Should Be Writing Short Stories

Some of the best writing advice I have ever received was given to me by an editor at World Fantasy Convention. Simply put, he said I needed to write short stories. His reasoning was that writing short stories will teach you craft better than jumping straight into novels will. Also, it will teach you how to actually finish a story. After slogging through two novels (both still incomplete) and then successfully completing six short stories, I can tell you that his advice certainly worked for me. And each story written was better than the last.

In a recent blog post, Kristine Kathryn Rusch gave similar advice, but for different reasons. She looks at the short form from a business perspective. I’d highly recommend reading her original post, but basically she said that the current market conditions, as well as the ability to reassume complete control of the rights of your story after a short amount of time, lend great potential to making a career of short story writing.

There are other reasons as well. If you write speculative fiction, you probably have plenty of notes, or perhaps even notebooks, of worldbuilding trivia, including some semblance of a history of your world. How many interesting stories can be mined from all this material? Chances are there are a few, and if you’re writing a series, these stories will also help draw new readers to those other works, and vice versa (which is the exact tack I’m taking with my short story collection and subsequent novel). An author whom I think has done a remarkable job with this method is Peter Orullian. Before his book was released, he published a few short stories related to the novel on Tor.com. I’m sure the stories helped generate more interest in the book than there would otherwise have been. It worked for me; I bought the book on release day based on the strength of those stories. Another advantage to writing stories about those events that otherwise exist only in your notes is that it could help flesh them out in your own mind, providing more concrete detail from which to draw for your novel.

I know what some of you are thinking: “I’m a novelist, not a short story writer!” I thought the same thing before. But then I gave it a shot, and now I’m a firm believer in short stories. While not everyone will get much out of writing them, it costs very little in the way of time, and the potential benefits are too great to ignore. Who knows? You might even like it.