Storytelling Techniques - Getting the Most From Short Stories
Short stories are not always easy, simply because of the way they are constructed. There’s a lot to pack into something that may only be a few thousand words. But the fundamental difference between a novel and a short story, other than the length, is that a short story only captures a brief moment in your main character’s life, rather than a set timeline of events.
That’s because novels can span years or even decades. A short story simply doesn’t have the room to focus on these things. It can only capture a few days in the life of your protagonist. This makes it easier to condense a lot of the fictional elements into a short time frame. The best short stories tend to have short time-spans – hours rather than days. It keeps the story tight, concise and focused.
The structure of the short story is important – it consists of a single premise, a coupe of characters, a strong theme and it takes place in a short time frame. By their very nature, they are contained, so their structure is specifically designed to capture only the most important things. They don’t have the luxury of a large novel in which to expand. But that’s what makes short stories so compelling and enjoyable.
While it might have a beginning and an end, it won’t have an expansive middle, which is why it’s important to ensure enough of the story makes use of every single word chosen. Think carefully about what the story wants to say, but more important, how you will write it.
What short stories also do is find that balance of narration, dialogue and description. Enough narration provides the reader information, dialogue help move things along and description adds colour, depth and sensory detail to create mood and atmosphere.
Short stories are character-led rather than plot-driven. There is no room for a complicated plot; therefore the characters do all the work to tell the story, and that means that characterisations are sometimes better observed in short stories.
Another major difference is the number of characters who inhabit the story. Novels have a large cast of characters, whereas short stories have less than a handful. Fewer characters make it easier to manage them without compromising characterisation. Some of the best short stories have only one or two characters. This means writers can bring forward the background detail that often takes a back seat in novels to help provide the reader with immediacy. Detail really does count with short stories.
Do you have one central premise? Don’t overload the story with lots of plotlines. An overcomplicated plot can ruin a short story. That means subplots are surplus to requirements. Trying to squeeze in a subplot or two will confuse things. That’s not to say you can’t, but the idea with short stories – as opposed to novels – is to keep it simple.
The same principle would apply with your theme. There isn’t enough room to expand lots of themes, so one or two central themes tend to dominate. And that’s all a short story needs.
Regardless of story length, conflict makes the story. With few characters, conflict is kept to a minimum, and is easy to manage. And with conflict, there should also be room for a touch of emotion.
But don’t get clever and make your short story super complicated. They don’t need it. The more stuff you throw into a short story, the more confusing it will be.
If you want to get the most from your short story, don’t create a complicated plot. Use a single premise over a very short time period and lead with a couple of strong characters. Use one main theme to underscore the story, one main conflict and keep a balance of narrative, dialogue and description.
Above all, keep it simple.