Going Short

Here’s a grammar thing in my occasional (rare) remarks about grammar and usage. I just heard this mistake in an online poetry reading. You may know what’s correct, but if not, here it is. It isn’t a happy thing, but we writers should get it right. The past tense of hang when it comes to people is hanged. This from Merriam-Webster: “The Salem “witches” were not burned; they were hanged.” Otherwise, it’s hung.  For our purposes, though, there may be exceptions. If I were writing about elves, for example, I’d use hanged (although the idea of hanged elves is horrible). Same if the characters in my story were talking animals.

I have another less depressing one for the next post if I remember.

On December 12, 2019, Whimsical Wordsmith wrote, I was wondering how to keep stories short. I often come up with ideas for stories that I like and want to work on, and I dive right in. But the plots and subplots become more and more complex, and suddenly, I have a novel on my hands. I’m already in the process of writing a novel at the moment and can’t tackle another right now; how do I keep short stories short?

A conversation developed.

Katie W.: What you can do (and what I have done several times) is write a single episode in the larger story. Novel chapters are usually pretty good lengths for short stories. I’m not so good at incorporating the right bits of backstory to make it make sense to other people, but it might work a bit better for you. If you still want to try to write the entire story, you could try writing it from a summarizing standpoint, like authors do when they recap what’s happened in earlier books. It would make it more formal, possibly too formal for your taste, but it might work.

Whimsical Wordsmith: Thanks for the suggestion, that will definitely help. Maybe I didn’t word the rest of my question exactly right though:

How do I make short stories that stay short, but still include the important details? I try to incorporate the backstory, but it comes off as the character just spilling information to the character for no exact reason (I’m used to information being revealed through events and little snippets, but it becomes a little too long and slow in a short story). How do I determine what and what doesn’t need to be known to the reader?

Katie W.: Sorry, I can’t help you with that because I have exactly the same problem. I took a creative writing class this semester, and one of the most consistent bits of feedback I got was that there wasn’t enough world building/backstory for people to understand what was going on. The stories were about a third of the length I was used to, and for a lot of it I was working with characters I was already familiar with, and so I ended up leaving out a lot of stuff that apparently needed to be explained.

Raina: I think there are two ways to approach this issue: one is to recognize what story ideas are meant for short story form, and the second is to actually cut them down.

Some ideas are better fits for novels than short stories, and that’s perfectly fine! Just be aware of that, and be ready to approach them from a different angle. Generally a sign is complex or multiple subplots, or too many main characters. For me, the general rule of thumb is if I can’t plan out all of the plot events, beginning to end, without having to write stuff down, then it’s not meant to be a short story. Number of scenes can also be an indicator; short stories generally focus on a small slice of life that tells a complete story in a few scenes, or in some rarer cases, a large “tapestry” that covers a lot of time but uses a lot of telling instead of showing and never zooms in (like classic fairy tales). But it sounds like you already recognize when a short story is turning into a novel. What I’d recommend is to let it become a novel (just because you have an idea for a novel doesn’t mean you have to work on it right away! It’s perfectly fine to write your ideas down and come back to actually write the book when you’ve cleared off your plate) or get rid of all the subplots to turn it back into a short story.

As for how to cut your short story shorter: a good rule of thumb is that everything that does not relate to the central storyline in an important and unique way needs to go. And if you’ve gone through the steps above to make sure your story is a short story, your central storyline should be clear and relatively simple.

I’m going to argue that unlike in novels, details such as backstory, character development, and world-building only need to be there if they have a direct impact on the present action. And it only needs to be there once; if you already have a paragraph showing a personality trait of your character, you don’t need to have a different paragraph showing that same trait in a different way, unless it contributes something significantly new and important. For example, look at the classic short story “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl (Upper middle school and up, link here: http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/lamb.html), which is about a housewife who murders her husband in a crime of passion and gets away with it by feeding the murder weapon (a frozen leg of lamb) to the unwitting detectives. The story is 3899 words and has approximately 3 scenes covering about an evening of real time. Notice what details Dahl leaves out: most of Mary’s relationship with her husband, including the actual details of the conversation that incites her to murder. If this was a novel, it would be great to show a lot of flashbacks to see the intricacies of the relationship between Mary and Patrick, or little details to show their individual personalities. But in a short story, that would be unnecessary, because the story isn’t about Mary and Patrick’s failing marriage; it’s about Mary getting away with murder with a clever scheme. Dahl tells us what we need to know in broad strokes. Mary’s pregnant (which is relevant because that’s her motivation for trying to get away with murder), she’s a doting housewife who adores her husband (which is why she’s so shocked and devastated when he asks to divorce her, and puts her in the mindset for murder), and her husband just dumped her (which is what pushes her to murder). All of those directly relate to the central storyline, which is the murder and the subsequent cover-up.

I’m with Raina all the way.

If a story wants to be a novel, I say, Hooray! My mind also makes a natural beeline for complexity. Some of us are mainly novelists and some mostly short story writers.

But if you’re a novelist and want to try a shorter form, that’s terrific. We should stretch ourselves sometimes, in this case by shrinking!

I’m also with Raina about bringing in only a few major characters. In fact, I think that may be the most important strategy. I’d also suggest that only one character–or none!–is allowed a backstory, which will narrow our plot and keep it focused. The reader should really care only about our MC. Okay, maybe one other character can matter.

I haven’t read many short stories, but my favorite is “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver (high school and up). There’s very little action. The MC and his wife are visited by an old friend of hers who’s blind. The MC, who is an unappealing character, doesn’t like blind people. They eat dinner and watch a documentary on TV about a cathedral. The wife goes upstairs, comes down again, falls asleep on the couch. The blind man and the MC draw the cathedral in the documentary. That’s it, and yet the unlikable MC goes through a transformation and is barely the same person by the end. The story is an astonishment.

There are just three characters, and the only back story is related by the MC, and it’s about his wife. We never find out what made the MC the closed-off, biased person he is. We’re shown his personality vividly through his thoughts and don’t need anything more to participate as readers in his transformation.

So one choice we can make is to focus on character over action.

And to remember that backstory often isn’t necessary. We may need it for ourselves to understand our characters, but the reader doesn’t have to be in on the secret. Even in novels, backstory is no more than optional. In the Sherlock Holmes books, for example, we never learn what makes Holmes so brilliant and peculiar or why Moriarty is evil, and why Dr. Watson is ordinary. They just are.

Another strategy is to paint on a small canvas. If our setting is limited, we don’t have to devote a lot of words to it. “Cathedral” begins and ends in the MC’s home. The action may even take place in only one room, but I don’t remember well enough to be sure.

I have four published short stories in anthologies. One is a contemporary fantasy, and another would probably be described as contemporary science fiction. The other two are simply contemporary without any magic. If we stick with the modern world, we have only the fantasy element to explain, if it’s there. If we try fantasy, I’d say we should impose limits on our world-building. We can set our story in familiar settings, like a medieval town and then leave most of it to the reader’s imagination. We can allow ourselves, say, one dragon and one elf. We’re just asking for a novel if we include ogres, fairies, and changelings.

The premise of my short story, “Wish Week,” a contemporary fantasy, is that in a certain town, during Wish Week, the sixth graders make a wish, which, within certain limits, comes true–for a week. Only the child who made the wish remembers the results in detail. At the end of the week, everything snaps back to normal. My MC, who is in the middle of an argument with her best friend, wishes for the metaphor in the saying to come true: to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. My MC sees the effects globally as people understand the effects of their actions. The major characters are my MC and her best friend. Walk-on roles go to a former best friend, Tam’s mother, and a few staff at the middle school. Settings are limited, too. There’s brief backstory about the two friendships. The story is twenty-four pages long.

Endings can be less resolved than they often are in novels. The reader doesn’t find out if the transformation in “Cathedral” lasts more than a day. In Raina’s example, the reader doesn’t find out if Mary goes on to become known as the frozen-meat serial killer.

One more strategy: Keep the time frame of the story tight. “Lamb to the Slaughter” takes place in an evening. Same with “Cathedral.” “Wish Week” lasts a week or so. Longer times will cry out for more pages.

Here are four prompts:

• Your MC goes on a hike with a friend, and they meet one other person (or creature). When they come back, your MC has new insight into herself. Write the story.

• Fictionalize an anecdote from your life in a short story.

• If you’re in high school or high school plus, read “Cathedral,” which is available online, and write a short story (or a novel) that takes place earlier in the life of the MC. Or try one that takes place after the events in “Cathedral.” Or write both!

• Use my wish-week idea. Your MC makes a different wish. Write a story about what happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. NerdyNiña says:

    Thank you, this was a great post! I struggle with making my short stories too complicated, too, so this was really helpful.
    On July 14, I’m going to have a story published on Havok. They have a different story every day, and you can only access it on one day unless you get a subscription. This is my first publication ever, so I’m pretty excited.
    This is the link to Havok’s page.
    https://gohavok.com/

  2. RedTrumpetWriter says:

    Congrats NerdyNina! It sounds like July is the month to get published, I just finally self published my novel Blackbird Pie on Amazon this month as well! (if anyone would like to check it out you can search blackbird pie haven blough and it should come up, it has a drawing of a lute and a pie on the front) It’s so awesome that we writers have places like this wonderful blog to support and celebrate each other; I wish you all the best!

    • Gabriella Shell says:

      RedTrumpetRider, my friend and I are working onpublishing a book on Amazon in the next few months. Any tips?

      • RedTrumpetWriter says:

        @ Gabriella Shell definitely check out their free templates because they do heading, page number, margins, etc. for you (as long as the sizes match) and you just have to copy and paste. There’s videos on their help page and on youtube as well that pretty much explain everything. You can also order print proofs before publishing at print cost which is awesome because sometimes things don’t always look the same online and I think it’s easier to catch mistakes in a hard copy. I hope it goes well!

        Also thanks everyone else for your kind words and support!

  3. I always get insights from all of you, Gail, Raina, and all, from this blog. Thank you and congratulations to the published authors here!
    If you love MG novels as I do, please read BAN THIS BOOK by Alan Gratz!

  4. I love Alan Gratz! I’ve read Projekt 1065, Prisoner B- 3087, Allies, and Grenade. I’ll definitely add that to my list.

  5. I agree with a lot of the things you’ve said here, Gail. Here are a few things I’ve learned from writing flash fiction and short stories:

    – As you said, limit the focus to only 1 or 2 main characters. You can include side characters as part of the background, but the focus should be on only one or two main characters, maybe three at most.

    – Limit your story to ONE story question. You should focus on one decision, event, revelation, or turning point that the character goes through, along with the immediate consequences. If you need more than one, the subsequent questions should be a natural progression from the first story question.

    – Keep background information limited to concise, concrete detail that is relevant to the story question. If it doesn’t provide information or context to help you understand the decision/event/revelation/turning point, cut it out. And if you need a flashback to reveal the information, it’s WAY too much backstory. This goes for both character backstory and worldbuilding.

    – Like you said, limit settings/locations to only 1-3. If you feel the need to include more, ask yourself if the scene HAS to take place in that particular location to work.

    – Limit yourself to 5 scenes or less.

    – In the Writing Excuses podcast, they talk about short stories being limited to 3-5 (I think) “Yes, but/No, and” story questions and answers. I highly recommend giving them a listen: https://writingexcuses.com/2017/08/13/12-33-how-to-be-brief-yet-powerful/

    Here are some examples from my writing that I’m particularly proud of:
    Flash fiction:
    “Dragon Fetus” – https://jenalynauthor.wixsite.com/that-touch-of-magic/post/dragon-fetus
    “Time Has Wings” – https://jenalynauthor.wixsite.com/that-touch-of-magic/post/time-has-wings
    “The Stone Steps” – https://jenalynauthor.wixsite.com/that-touch-of-magic/post/the-stone-steps
    Short Stories:
    “Snowdrop” – https://jenalynauthor.wixsite.com/that-touch-of-magic/post/the-stone-steps
    “Colorless” – https://jenalynauthor.wixsite.com/that-touch-of-magic/post/colorless
    “Larkin Ascending” – https://jenalynauthor.wixsite.com/that-touch-of-magic/post/larkin-ascending
    “The Ancient One” – https://jenalynauthor.wixsite.com/that-touch-of-magic/post/the-ancient-one

    Most of these stories take place in other worlds or have urban fantasy elements, so I hope they’ll help give examples of how to handles worldbuilding in short fiction. 🙂

  6. I was thinking we could have some fun with this topic: A bunch of us could write Drabbles (stories that are exactly 100 words long) using Gail’s prompts, and post them here. We couldn’t sell them, but it would be good practice in writing short. What do you think?

    • I like it. Here’s mine. ‘Fictionalize an anecdote from your life in a short story.’
      “Who do you want to go to the party with?” Teresa asked.
      The room was loud, but I knew my voice sometimes carried better than I thought it would. “He’s right here!” I hissed.
      Teresa looked around. “Is it Owen?”
      “No!” I’d forgotten Owen was sitting nearby. “Sorry, Owen.” I muttered.
      I stared at the back of his head, visible over Teresa’s shoulder, desperately wanting to touch his dark, curly hair. Beside me, Leanna noticed who I was looking at
      “Is it the boy in the blue shirt?” she whispered.
      I nodded, blushing, and she turned to Teresa. “It’s Lucas.”

    • I’ll give a “Wish Week” drabble a try:

      The week had gone perfectly. Kids who’d avoided her waved Hi. The boy who’d spitballed her picked up the pencil she’d dropped. And Tina- funny, fun Tina, the girl everybody liked, had been her best friend.

      And now here she was again, walking to class with her head down while kids flowed past, unseeing.

      Only… now some of the faces were familiar. Sometimes she couldn’t help smiling at some remembered joke.
      And some kids smiled back. They couldn’t possibly remember last week, but they smiled back!
      Everything was the same again- except her. Maybe tomorrow she’d say Hi to Tina.

  7. Ooh, this reminds me of something I heard in class once. If I remember rightly, it was Ernest Hemingway who wrote a story in six words:
    “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
    Ugh, it’s amazing. I love short stories!

  8. I really enjoyed writing this! I picked “Wish Week” too.
    The fairy wings had been magical. Lia had gone everywhere; the market, the library, the dance. Even though her feet had never touched the ground, she had done everything she had ever dreamed of. She had wanted it to be Wish Week her whole life. Although she was sad it was over, she would always remember it.
    Lia rubbed her legs under the blanket. She had gone everywhere the doctors had said she would never be able to go. The disease might have crippled her body, but it would never weaken her mind, her creativity, or, most importantly, her heart.

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