On Writing Short Stories


According to the Short Story Group, there are five essentials to writing a short story:

“1. Have a clear theme. What is the story about? That doesn’t mean what is the plot line, the sequence of events or the character’s actions, it means what is the underlying message or statement behind the words. Get this right and your story will have more resonance in the minds of your readers.
2. An effective short story covers a very short time span. It may be one single event that proves pivotal in the life of the character, and that event will illustrate the theme.
3. Don’t have too many characters. Each new character will bring a new dimension to the story, and for an effective short story too many diverse dimensions (or directions) will dilute the theme. Have only enough characters to effectively illustrate the theme.
4. Make every word count. There is no room for unnecessary expansion in a short story. If each word is not working towards putting across the theme, delete it.
5. Focus. The best stories are the ones that follow a narrow subject line. What is the point of your story? Its point is its theme. It’s tempting to digress, but in a ‘short’ you have to follow the straight and narrow otherwise you end up with either a novel beginning or a hodgepodge of ideas that add up to nothing.”

As I was finalizing my short story “Episodes,” I realized that a contest I’d wanted to enter it in had a word limit that pegged my story a thousand words too long. At first I felt disheartened, certain that every word was surely pure gold. But, as I began sifting through the manuscript again, this time with an eye for the fat, I found myself cutting things left and right–similes upon similes, adverbs upon adverbs, entire sentences of useless exposition. In the end, a thousand words later, I found that my story not only fit the contest requirements but was a significantly better read!

After this experience and reviewing these tips from the Short Story Group, I’ve come to a conclusion that might sound a bit like heresy: novels are just too long.

I know how this must sound, especially coming from an author and reader of books fiction and nonfiction alike, but I think my new goal is not simply to tell a good, socially relevant (even socially useful story), but to tell one with as few words as possible. I don’t believe that this means I won’t still produce “novel length” works (+80,000 words), but simply that I might have to sift through 160,000 of them to get there.

What do you think? What is your editing process like? Have you ever had a similar experience with one of your stories?


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