Why Short Stories Are Difficult to Write

 

by Teagan Berry

I’ve never thought I was capable of writing short stories. Novels? No problem. Give me an idea and I can run with it for eighty-thousand words without hesitation. But ask me to tell a complete story arc from start to finish in five-thousand words or less? Never. Not a chance.

That’s how I’ve always believed things to be. And I never imagined I’ve have a differing perspective on the matter until just very recently. It occurred to me the other day that though yes, there are definitely technical differences between writing short stories and full length novels, it’s also very much a mental game with yourself. If you back yourself into a corner, only ever believing you’re capable of one or the other, you’ll never truly succeed at anything else. You’ll forevermore be uncomfortable with writing out of that space you’ve become extremely familiar with.

I’ve written short stories – good ones, in fact. I’ve been writing them for almost two whole years in a collaborative piece with my writing friend, Lyndsay. The only difference between those pieces and what I’ve always thought of as a traditional short story? The ones we’re writing require some previous knowledge from the respective books we’ve each written.

I guess it’s different when you’re working with characters who already have a background you’ve delved into – maybe it makes it easier. And in a way, there’s less work for you to do. Your reader already knows information about this character – yes, maybe there might be that odd person who hasn’t read your novel yet, but that’s what those quick pieces of background information you throw in there are for. So when you start that short story, you can focus on the plot, on where you’re taking the piece and how it’s going to end.

But of course, there are still some short story rules you should follow. I’ve learned a lot of these the hard way (which resulted in a lot of rewriting!).

  1. Make sure you limit the number of characters. Don’t have more than a couple of protagonists. Too many will clutter the story and take the focus away from the action going on in the plot!
  2. Time frames should remain quite short. In novels, it’s much easier to spread your story out over a series of months, but since the short story format is, well – short! – you need to keep the timeline reasonable to allow for events to feel important and carry the weight they deserve.
  3. Every word counts! This might be the most important thing to remember about short stories. You have a limited word count, so every single one should have meaning and be there for a reason. If you’re adding unnecessary fluff, take it out. Fluff is not needed.

With all this said and the rules laid out, it still doesn’t make writing a short story any easier. Yes, this might provide you with a bit of a guideline for what you should and shouldn’t do in short stories, but we’re writers. Let’s be honest, sometimes rules just have to be broken. Now please, don’t break all of them at the same time (and the three I gave are by far not the only rules – more like a couple of examples). But don’t be afraid to push the boundaries and bend the rules to fit whatever it is you’re writing about. After all, that’s what writing is all about, right?

Keep writing, everyone, and if you have any other short story tips, pass them along in the comments section.

Until next time.

 

 

 

Guest post contributed by Teagan Berry. Teagan writes books, watches sports, and reads. She started her blog initially to beat writer’s block, but it’s turned into so much more. 

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24 thoughts on “Why Short Stories Are Difficult to Write”

  1. Funny thing is I am the opposite. I can bang out shorts with ease, but full-length works tend to get bogged down with too much fluff. Coming from screenwriting and shorts, where indeed, every word counts, suddenly having all those spacious pages to add pretty words to can lead to some rather excessive prose. Vigilance in the face of verbosity!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I once attended a writer’s panel where one of the speakers said “If you can’t tell a story in 5,000 words, how can you do it in 50,000.” Of course that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but in recent years I’ve come to think of stories as, among other things, a series of nesting dolls. Even as scenes are part of a larger chapter, and a larger novel, the scene itself does need at least one self contained plot thread/conflict.

    I also think, as you say, that the necessity to keep short stories short, and by extension “make every word count”, really helps a writer to become more industrious with their words. Looking back, some of my attempts at novel writing were definitely a little thin, and in need of reduction.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I tell you what, I am gathering all the wisdom I can on short story telling. I am trying to get in the groove of telling shorts, as practice for telling longs. I agree 110% with your quote up there. Its the same with teaching. I tell an expert by the way they can teach a two year old. If you cannot simplify it, you don’t know it well enough. Simplify, define and focus on the greater plot, then color it in with stories to fill it out. Thats what Im trying to do at the moment, but Im singing it pretty difficult. Don’t take this as advice or anything, its all from an unversed writer. It just rang true with me, what you said, Adam. Peace

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Short stories are a challenge, but I enjoy writing them as much as I do reading them. I think another “rule” that needs to be added pertains to the genre you write your stories in. Certain genres have specific guidelines, though they can be broken like any other “rule.” But I do believe they require some knowledge on the genre itself. I know it’s hard for me to write stories in other genres because I haven’t read many stories in different genres. But it’s something I’m willing to try.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I love short stories! Sometimes the shorter the better. It becomes a challenge. I’m working on a novel and I can’t seem to get past the first 2 chapters. Your tips are very helpful though. Characters can be everything or nothing if your not careful. Thanks for the advice!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. I love writing short stories. The idea of writing a novel gives me hives. I don’t think I could stay with a character for 50,000 or more words. I definitely want to try writing a novel at some point because like you wrote, “If you back yourself into a corner, only ever believing you’re capable of one or the other, you’ll never truly succeed at anything else. You’ll forevermore be uncomfortable with writing out of that space you’ve become extremely familiar with.” It goes both ways.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thank you for posting such great tips. I started writing short stories in the past year and it’s a big difference between short stories and the novellas and full-length novels I was writing. I found myself having to include only the main characters for my short stories opposed to the countless ones I featured in my full-length novels. But I do firmly believe that practice will allow anyone to become a better writer at writing short stories. It is quite the adjustment to make if you are used to writing longer works.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I enjoy writing short stories! Well it’s the only kind of stories I can write as of now. Perhaps they are super short too.

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  8. Excellent advice, especially limiting the character pool. My “rule” is 5 with 2 in the periphery. Trying to do a children’s book right now. Wow! Less than a page of content. One of my mentors suggests writing the whole thing, the story, that is, just like you’d pitch it, in one sitting with no more than 700-800 words, a page at most. Then edit that down, then fill it back up as you write “The Story”. Again, I thank you, new to blogging who would’ve…?

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  9. This is really great advice, I write short stories but generally the stories I write are between 20 thousand and 40 thousand words long.

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  10. Rather than seeing the brevity as a limit on the richness of a character or scene, view it as offering more agency to the reader. Everyday, many, perhaps most, of us encounter persons otherwise unknown and still we form impressions of them, however fictional.

    In offering snippets and clues to the characters, places, and times, whose truth is known only to the author, the reader gets to do the same. The trick, I aspire to, is to make those hints and clues tasty enough to get those reader’s juices flowing!

    Of course, some short stories are all about character, and short on plot, in which case my above flips over entirely. Oh the joys of writing.

    Nice piece, thank you 😉

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  11. Thank you for this! I just wrote my first 3-part short series all inspired by my dreaded 9-5 office job incubating in a cubicle. I’ve come to learn that my environment, no matter how dull, can be a pool to draw inspiration from.

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