“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”
―Lorrie Moore“A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.”
― David Sedaris
“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
Wonderful quotes but they don’t get to the heart of the matter which is what is a short story, what makes a short story great and how to write one. I have been reading a number of short stories lately, either in anthologies or published as stand alone pieces of fiction, and in the majority of the stories I have read, I am seeing the same issues over and over again. Rarely is the story I read a complete one. They have the feel of the beginning of a story, or the middle of a story or sometimes just a chapter in a story, but not a complete story. And in those stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end, it is the ending that is always rushed. It is as though the author looked at the current word count and quickly scrambled to complete it within the allotted number without rounding out the story.
So with so many short stories being published, I thought Scattered Thoughts should look at what is a short story and what makes a short story great? First, what constitutes a short story? A short story is defined as a story with a range is usually between 3000 to 5000 words with 10,000 being the maximum. Although this can vary depending upon different writing guilds. The Science Fiction Writers of American uses these categories for their Nebula awards:
- Short fiction: under 7,500 words
- Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words
- Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
- Novel: 40,000 words and up
But for the purposes of this article, let’s go with the 10,000 words, just to be on the generous side. I say that because the smaller the word count, the harder it is for the author to write a good short story, let alone a great one. Writing a short story is not the easy task that some think it is. William Faulkner calls it “the most demanding form after poetry”. Absolutely true, especially when you consider the elements that make up a good story. For me those elements are unforgettable characters, a strong beginning, solid story framework, consistency, and a strong (read not rushed) ending. That is what I look for when reading (and reviewing) stories. And for me those components remain no matter the length or the genre.
But let’s look at the most common five elements that go into every fictional story: character, setting, conflict, plot and theme. A short story takes those same elements and narrows it down proportionately. On the whole, short stories tend to be less dense in plot, usually focusing on one event or experience. The short story typically has a single plot, a single setting, a small number of characters, and covers a short period of time. This does not mean that you write a story and then cut it off prematurely in order to get the word count right. And that is the story that comes across my Kindle time and again.
What should an author remember when writing a short story? What is your goals in writing it? Have you achieved those goals at the end? Where is your emphasis, on characters and plot? Or on length? Remember what type and length of story you are telling. If you start out writing a short story but the characters and plot pull you further than you expected, then sit back and reorganize your thoughts. Maybe the framework you set out is that of a novella or novel. If so, rewrite your goals and continue on with your longer version. But don’t try to fit it into the constraints of a short story or a word count objective received from a publisher if that is not the story you are writing.
I know sometimes it is hard to condense all your ideas for plots and characters once you get started. There are “voices” that clamor for your attention, each demanding their story to be told. Or at least that is what some authors tell me. But remember, your goal is the short story. It has a finite framework, a compact (but not necessarily simplified) plot that contains all the same elements of a larger piece of fiction. Remember that every word counts. Make sure each word moves your story toward the character’s goal. Because you are working towards one goal… that of a great short story, an illusive animal indeed.
What makes a short story great? A short story takes all those elements listed above, and executes them beautifully, giving us memorable characters and a story that makes you think and feel far past the ending. A great short story can rock you on your feet, take your breath away or make you laugh. It doesn’t leave you frustrated that the ending was rushed or that something was left out, whether it was a more layered characterization or incomplete world building. The great short story feels complete because it is complete. Sounds so simple, yet so hard to achieve.
As William Faulkner said:
“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”
Writing is an art form. It will pull the guts out of you, it will take your blood, your heart and soul, and then ask for more to be spilled out across the page as you write. It is frustrating, it is exhilarating and sometimes stupefying. It’s hard work. And the short story form is all that and much, much more compressed into a small gem. But only if it is done correctly. Only if you know what a short story demands of you and you respect that. Otherwise all you will be left with is a truncated novel that satisfies no one, including yourself.
I am currently making a list of the best M/M Short Stories I have read. Let me know if you have any you think should be on the list. In the meantime, here is a link to a list of The 50 Best Short Stories (not m/m) and 100 Great Short Stories. In the meantime, Scattered Thoughts is still on the hunt for that illusive animal, the great short story.