How different are they from writing full length stories such as novels or novellas?
Despite their similarities, short stories are quite different, certainly where structure and content is concerned.
Unlike novels, short stories have a limited amount of space in which to tell the story; usually around. 1000 – 10,000 words, so how the story is told is dictated by its length. In contrast to novels, there is a lot to cram into the short story, without it feeling too cluttered, rushed or contrived.
There are no hard and fast rules where short stories are concerned, but there are certain aspects writers should consider and a number of things they should pay attention to, especially as there is a limited amount of words to work with. That doesn’t mean writers have to be so economical with words to the point that description suffers and falls prey to ‘telling’, rather than ‘showing’ but instead it means writers have to be very careful about which scenes require more description and which scenes don’t, because even short stories need adequate description and imagery to help make them more believable.
What does a short story need?
From the outset, your short story must identify whose story it is and what the central point of the story is. If you have only 1000 words in which to tell that story, then it’s vital you engage the reader from the very first word. That means introducing the main character immediately and letting the reader know what the situation is within the first two paragraphs.
It’s important that the reader understands the story from the opening lines. Establish the time, the place and the action (the Greek Unities) as early as possible. It makes life easier for the reader and for the writer.
Get the POV right before you start. Whether it’s first person (popular with short story writing) or third person, make sure you’re comfortable with it – and stick with it – otherwise you’ll end up doing more work in the long run to correct a POV that just doesn’t work.
Just like the novel, a short story needs a great beginning, an interesting middle and a satisfactory end, which is no mean feat when you don’t have many words to do it. Not only that, but the story must make sense. There is nothing worse than a short story that doesn’t have a theme and then wanders off the beaten track and doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say.
It also needs a significant starting point. Jump straight in right at a pivotal moment that something affects your main character. Short stories don’t have the luxury of lots of exposition, so it’s important to establish the defining opening scene because that then sets the tone for the rest of the story.
Don’t skimp on tension, atmosphere, emotion and conflict. Just because short stories are short in length doesn’t mean that writers should overlook some very vital ingredients. It might seem a lot to fit in, but it can be done. It just means that every word and sentence is precious, so make each one count.
Don’t complicate the story with too many characters; otherwise it will be hard for the reader to follow them. The fewer the characters in the story, the less likelihood there is for complication. Fewer characters make for a better story because it makes the narrative tighter and allows the writer to concentrate fully on those characters. It will also prove easier for the reader to follow and much easier for the writer to establish immediacy with the reader.
The short story structure is less complex than the novel because there are fewer themes and almost no subplots (that just takes up valuable wordage). All the aspects of a novel can be found in a short story, but they are considerably pared down, like a miniature novel.
Why do some short stories fail?
1. The writer has used too many characters, so it becomes too confusing for the reader to follow who is doing what and when.
2. The writer has failed to let the reader know the time, the place or action and simply blunders on regardless.
3. The story hasn’t opened at the most crucial point in the character’s life and instead it rambles on before anything interesting happens.
4. It hasn’t set any scene or revealed what is at the heart of the story.
5. It doesn’t have a very good beginning, with a muddled middle and a poor ending that gives no answers.
6. There is no central theme.
7. The writer just hasn’t thought it through.
Some people can write short stories with ease, but find novels more complex, while novelists find it bothersome to contain a whole story in 1000 – 10,000 words. Others can do both.
The best way to understand how short stories are structured and how they work, however, is to read as many as possible. The more you read, the more you will learn.
Next week: The Fundamentals of Novel Writing