I know what month it is. I know ’tis the season to get NaNo, fa la la la la, la la la WRITE! As a Municipal Liaison and long-time advocate of NaNo sprints, I’m all about that rush to the finish. However! In a shock twist, today I want to talk to you not about writing 50,000 words. I’ve already talked that talk – there are links to all my previous pep talks and NaNo strategy here.
The reason why I love NaNo so much is that I am very, very wordy. My characters can prattle on about their feelings for hundreds upon hundreds of words. It’s a great way of getting to know your characters and their motivations, even if those musings never make the final draft.
Recently though, I’ve had to learn the art of the short story. After a brilliant tutorial by my OU Tutor, and several tweets where I whined about the impossible nature of the task, I was able to crack it.
The short story demands the opposite of you than a novel, but the same rules can apply to both. Word count is the main difference, but there’s more to it than that. Whereas a story can guide you through a series of events, the typical short story focuses in on just one. For the purposes of this post, I’m talking about stories that are less than 5,000 words.
Here are my tips to writing a short story:
1. Get to the point
You don’t have the luxury of space in a short story. While they can range from a few hundred to a few thousand words, you still need to ration the information that you give to the reader. Research is vital, but it’s more for your own purposes. For example, in the short story I recently wrote, my main character was a soldier injured by a roadside bomb. I didn’t have to explain that he was a soldier. I made his manner and his word choice clipped and precise, and mentioned that a tank was the last thing he saw before an IED blew up and made him go blind. I didn’t go into the injury, the rehab, or other character’s reactions. While they would be interesting in a novel, for the purpose of this short story, they were superfluous detail. By choosing my words economically, I was able to show a lot about my character’s background without having to write it.
2. Identify the conflict quickly
In the basic three act structure for writing, the inciting incident might not happen for a few chapters in a novel. In a short story, the stakes need to be determined almost at once. Conflict doesn’t need to be as violent as the word suggests – it can be an outside source, or an inner struggle. Consider Neil Gaiman’s How To Talk To Girls At Parties. At first, we know that the narrator’s inner conflict comes from the fact that, as the title suggests, he doesn’t know how to talk to girls, and that his friend is insisting he goes to the party anyway. On the more sinister side of things, Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart uses an inner and outer conflict – the old man’s eye, and the madness consuming the narrator.
3. Ask a question of your reader
Once you’ve identified the conflict, make your reader wonder if your character is going to overcome this conflict. Will the narrator meet a girl he can understand? Will the narrator get away with murder? It’s important to have a question to keep the reader’s interest throughout. Otherwise, what is the story even about? There should be a point to the story, a resolution, otherwise the reader will feel robbed.
For all my complaining about having to write a short story, I really enjoyed the experience. I didn’t even have to trim or edit my word count by much in the end, once I learned the importance of being succinct. This is good advice for novels, too. Don’t just write something because it’s pretty. Make it matter!