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Monday, July 6, 2020

5 Short Story Tips Supported by the Greats

Many people assume that short stories are easier to write than novels, or novellas, because they are "short." Less pages means less work, right? Not according to every novelist I've spoken with about this topic. (I myself have only published short - no novel length works published so far - the longest pieces I've written are around the 70,000 mark which would be straddling the novella and novel word count range.) 

Mark Twain himself famously said, I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” As Mark Twain suggested I think writing a hundred words probably requires more mental effort than writing a thousand — particularly if you want it to be meaningful.

So, if writing short isn't necessarily easier, what are some tips that might help?

1. Less is more - Be concise. "Precision of language, please!" (Check out THE GIVER by Lois Lowry.) Only include the necessary elements. Remember that your readers are not stupid: You don’t have to spell everything out for them. The adage, "Show, Don't Tell" rules here. For more on this idea, check out Show Don't Tell! But Wait! I'm a Storyteller!

2. Message or mood - To make a short story good, there needs to be at least one main message, mood, or idea that you work up to. I think Edgar Allan Poe explained this concept well: “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” He wasn't alone in this ideology, Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald. It's not a strictly male perspective either. A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion – than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.– Eudora Welty

3. Recurring ideas - One common element I’ve noticed in all good short stories is that they each have a recurring thought, idea, theme, piece of dialogue, etc. It can be as simple as the way you describe the rain pattering on the roof. It can be a common phrase a character uses that means one thing in the beginning and morphs to mean something entirely different by the end (Woman's World seems to be fond of this idea with their fiction pieces.). A common string strategically placed throughout the story can give it extra power. It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power.” – Raymond Carver

4. Pathos is King - Want to draw a reader in quickly and effectively? I have one word for you: pathos. Play your readers emotions, make them identify with the situation or feel for your characters within the first few pages. If you can do that, then you're doing it right. It also becomes something that stays with the reader for years, maybe even calling upon an as yet, undiscovered truth. A good short story crosses the borders of our nations and our prejudices and our beliefs. A good short story asks a question that can’t be answered in simple terms. And even if we come up with some understanding, years later, while glancing out of a window, the story still has the potential to return, to alter right there in our mind and change everything.” ― Walter Mosley

5. Read - Read some good short stories. A few I’m personally fond of sharing with my students include The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin, and Indian Camp by Ernest Hemingway. However, there are thousands of great ones out there, all of them different, but many with common ground that can help you pinpoint exactly what makes a good story. When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.” – George Saunders. What are some of your favorite short stories?

If you've ever written a crappy short story (and really, haven't we all?) there's advice for that as well. Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” – Ray Bradbury

What are some tips you have to share when it comes to writing shorts? What are some of your favorites to read?

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