For most aspiring writers, a finished novel is the Holy Grail of accomplishment. A published, bestselling novel is the Holy Grail topped with Beluga caviar, whipped cream, and a marischino cherry. But the truth remains, not all writers are cut out to be writers of novels.
I, for instance, have the attention span of a rain dog, and the stamina of a fruit fly. Expecting me to grit my way through a novel is akin to locking a puppy in a room with a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle and expecting to see a pretty picture when you finally open the door. Ain’t gonna happen.
So, I write short stories. Yes, Virginia, some people still write short stories. No, Virginia, we’re not all ‘tetched in the head’.
If any of this sounds familiar, read on. If it doesn’t sound familiar, read on anyway—there’s a good chance you’re tetched in the head, too, but fooling yourself.
Short stories are neither aborted, nor truncated novels. They represent a separate and discrete art form. Short stories require an author to adopt a specific mindset—plus, an adherence to and an appreciation for some devilishly clever, and valuable tricks.
But before I reveal these foolproof and valuable tricks to you, I require that you deposit a mere $100.00 into my PayPal account (without mentioning it to the IRS, if you please).
Thank you all very much. I assure you it’s money well spent. Especially when you consider what I intend to spend it on. Best if you remain in the dark.
Now that our finances are in order, let us begin.
Writing Short Stories Rule #1: Weather
Skip the freakin’ weather report, Jack. I know, I know, every novel you’ve ever read starts with a ‘dark and gloomy night’ or a ‘new-fallen snow’ or ‘the fragrance of hibiscus wafting on a golden breeze of sunlight.’ But that’s all crap. Novelists have the luxury of spreading words around like manure on a hayfield. But we’re short story writers, Roscoe! So can the damned weather report (unless your story is about a hurricane), and don’t step in the manure. Didn’t I tell these tips are valuable? Heck, Jethro, you’ve already broke even.
Kurt Vonnegut preached, “Start your story as close to the end as possible.” This is the Golden Rule for a short story writer. It’s my guess that most writers start with a weather report because they think it’s some sort of Stephen King-ordained rule. Well, it ain’t. Weather has squat to with most stories, Irene, so let your first sentence do something important: Jack Stank never got hit in the face with a baseball bat before. No that’s a first sentence!
Writing Short Stories Rule #2: Setting
Listen up, my friends, because this one is worth your $100 all by itself.
Set your short story someplace you don’t have to waste words describing. For instance, if I say ‘bowling alley’ to you, do you need me to describe it? In a pig’s belly! You already know exactly what a bowling alley looks like, smells like, sounds like. Sure, I can add to the ambiance with a few well chosen descriptors, but as soon as I write bowling alley, my readers are already experiencing the scene through all of their senses. Write your setting in shorthand, and you have more words to spend on your short story. Damn, this is good. I should have charged more.
“But,” you say, “my story takes place in Vietnam.”
Doesn’t matter. Tell your Vietnam story from the bowling alley. Stories within stories are ideal for shorts. I just wrote a baseball story that took place in an airport bar. Believe me, this is a very useful technique. (See Rule #4)
Now, a measly $100 doesn’t entitle you to all of my magical, no-work settings, but here are a few of my favorites: Diners, libraries, bars, airports, log cabins, barns, park benches. See what I’m getting at? Keep your short story short by reducing your need to be elaborate when setting the scene. The more familiar the kitchen, the less time you have to spend setting the table. Geez, I only charged you $100? You should be ashamed of yourself.
Writing Short Stories Rule #3: Characters
First, keep the number of characters in your story to a minimum. Pretend every character is another piece of baggage, and you have to pay extra to get it on the plane. See what I mean? Each character you introduce needs some sort of backstory, and every backstory steals words you could be using for the real story. So, here again, I recommend you focus on the familiar. And use titles—Doctor, Professor, Detective, Indian Chief. Titles save words, Wilma. Personally, I like to use ‘ex’—ex-Marine, ex-ballplayer, ex-wife. When you describe a character as an ‘ex’, your reader will automatically fill in perceptions about this character. It’s all right if the perceptions turn out to be wrong, in fact that can be a useful device in storytelling. Allow your readers to assume something erroneous based on a stereotype, then prove them wrong in a ‘reveal’. Brilliant! As counter-intuitive as it may sound, readers love to be fooled, misdirected—as long as you don’t cheat, and when they look back, they can see you fooled them fairly. Never lie to your readers—unless you’re sure you can get away with it.
To sum up: Restrict yourself to a manageable number of characters. Make the ancillary characters vaguely recognizable in as few words as possible. That way, you can lavish (not really) descriptions on your most important characters.
Writing Short Stories Rule #4: Dialogue
Oh, no. Your initial deposit of $100 has just run out. Tune back in a few weeks for the rest of the short story story! And be sure to have another C-note handy.
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