Writing Short Stories & The Struggle With Brevity

If you’ve been following my posts on this site for the last… two years or so I guess? Wow. Has it been that long already? Anywho – if you’ve been following my post you’d know that I’m a big proponent of working on the the next project while the forces beyond your control do what they need to do with your last project.

For me the last few years, that’s been waiting for responses from query letters. Well I’m back in the query trenches again. While I did start my next novel, The Brewancer, I wanted try my hand at writing short stories too. I wanted a change of pace from novel writing, but also wanted to challenge myself to tell a competent story in format I’m relatively unfamiliar with. I read a bunch of the Nebula nominated stories earlier this year for our podcast, but other than that, I haven’t really had the time to delve into the many wonderful short stories coming out seemingly daily.

After spending about a month writing, editing, rewriting, reediting a short story about the end of the world heralded by a Pokemon GO-ish video game, I have this to report:

Writing short stories is really hard.

Not that novels are easy by any means, but at least with novels you have a lot more space – more freedom to tell your story the way you want. A standard SFF novel can be anywhere from 80.000 – 120,000 words (or more if you’re an established author). That’s an incredibly wide space to build a world and inhabit it with well developed characters. I tried writing some short fiction a few years ago, but it was a brief and messy dalliance. I considered this my first “real” attempt at writing a short story.

Here’s a few of the takeaways from the experience:

A Glimpse Into a Grander Tale – One of the approaches it took to writing a short story was looking at it as a scene in a larger narrative. This story has a few flashbacks, but the main plot is the buildup to and engagement of a big fight scene. I got this idea from Fran Wilde – who at World Fantasy read scene from her novel SKYBOUND that originally started as a story, but evolved into a novel.

Keep The Cast Small – There is only a finite amount of space to introduce and build a backstory for the characters in a short story. Mine had four. In the early drafts, the main character had three friends that she went with to fight the monsters. Well guess what? Putting together even a minimal backstory for three secondary characters was too much. Three friends became two. I think that worked out well, because I was able to give the two remaining a little more depth, even still with only 5,000ish words to work with.

Respect the Economy of Words – Brevity is not my strong suit. I like to use a lot of descriptions that some might consider a weeee bit overwrought (they are right usually) and this short story of exercise was the greatest challenge of my overwroughtness. It was difficult, not just because I’m prone to writing overlong descriptions, but because I felt like there was a necessity for flowery language if I wanted to eventually submit this to a “literary” short story magazine. So how to be descriptive without being tooooo descriptive? I don’t think I have quite gotten the right balance yet, but that’s what future drafts are for, right?

Endings Are the Hardest – I love a good cliffhanger ending. A cliffhanger with enough closure to be satisfying is something very difficult to pull off. I think I did a pretty well in OVERDARK, but not so much with my previous novels. Taking the approach of a short story being a scene in a larger tale, I had to both end a scene and give closure to that scene. There’s a main relationship centerpiece to the story I wanted to make sure had some semblance of satisfactory closure. Of all the challenges in writing a short story, this was probably the greatest. Because this is the end of a scene and the story could continue onward, the right mix of “The End” and “To Be Continued” was really tough to nail.

Complaining about the hard stuff aside, writing a short story was an overall enjoyable experience. I liked the challenge and I think the story itself is pretty good. I still have a fair amount of editing to do, but hopefully it will be ready for submission when the big markets open up again in the fall.

So what are your experiences with short stories? Any advice on how to navigate some troubles I had in writing them myself?   


2 thoughts on “Writing Short Stories & The Struggle With Brevity

  1. As a very wordy writer I tend to have a hard time constraining myself to short story formats but every now and then I get it to work and it’s always exciting to see the finished result! 😀

  2. livrancourt

    A couple years ago I went through a phase where I wrote quite a few short stories for different anthologies. They covered a variety of different subgenres of romance and other types of genre fiction. I treated them like grad school assignments, trying out different things so I could learn what worked best for me. Some of them are still out there, available to the general public – a couple I even self-published after the publisher went out of business and I got the rights back. I think you’re right on that the main lesson from writing short stories is how to narrow the focus, both in characters and plot threads, so it all fits in 5-10k words.

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