Midweek Writer-Rummage: The Short Story

Edgar Allan Poe

I’ve always enjoyed short stories; I like that you can complete numerous stories in one sitting, and it doesn’t require the time commitment that a novel does.

People seem to think that writing a short story is easy because it’s short.  But it can actually be more difficult than a novel as you, not only, have to condense your story idea, it still has to make sense, and satisfy the reader.

The first thing that needs to be done before writing a short story is to read short stories.  Unlike a novel that has all the time in the world for introductions and world-building, a short story gets right down to business; there’s no time to digress into superfluous description or, even, subplots.

A short story is basically the retelling of one episode.  The opening paragraph needs to grab the reader straight away and keep them involved.  A short story needs to be constantly on the move.  The best way to achieve that is through action and dialogue.  Instead of viewing it as daunting, take the opportunity to experiment with words and have fun with them.  Choose your words carefully to heighten the effect.

While you can have more than one character in a short story, usually the secondary characters are left as 2D, while the main character is built upon.  But whether it’s the main character or secondary ones, keep the description of their physical appearance short.  Reveal their personalities by what they say and do; there’s no room for the full characterisation that’s done in novels.  It is possible to use a character’s inner thoughts to reveal personality by using it as a form of dialogue.

When it comes to writing the story, attempt the first draft in one sitting.  Imagine you’re narrating it to someone.  Like when you’re reading a fairy tale to a child, you’d expect to do it in that one sitting. 

When you’ve written the first draft, read it out loud; it’s the best way to ‘hear’ any plot holes or where you’ve over-written.  Then rewrite and edit.  At least a couple of times.

Kurt Vonnegut’s essential tips on writing a short story lays it down succinctly:

  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.
  • Be a sadist.  No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  • Write to please just one person.  If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.  To heck with suspense.  Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Apart from Edgar Allan Poe, my favourite short stories are the ones by Stephen King, despite them being on the long side.  I also enjoy the short story collections by Annie Proulx; her ‘Close Range’ is where I discovered ‘Brokeback Mountain’.

An interesting note; can’t remember where I read this, but short stories translate well into films because of their length.  Apart from ‘Brokeback Mountain’, the other example that comes to mind is King’s ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ – rare examples where I enjoyed, both, book and film.