Shelley Widhalm

Writing Short Stories Simplified

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on September 2, 2012 at 11:00 am

Deciding among the shoes to pack for a trip requires the same approach as does writing short stories.

Take only the essentials and not a pair for every possible season and whimsy.

Writing short stories, like packing shoes, is done in a small space confined to the basic elements of storytelling.

The length of a short story varies depending on the writer, editor or publishing house doing the defining. The definitions I’ve found describe short stories as 1,000-5,000 words or anything up to 7,500 words or up to 10,000 words.

Because there are fewer words, a short story has to be limited to a specific time, place, event and interaction.

Whereas a novel can span a day or a year or more, a short story’s timeframe typically covers days or weeks. The short story cannot include too many places or events without feeling strained or scattered, or like a list.

A novel, because it is larger scale, offers more pages to develop ideas, plot, character and theme. At most, a short story can handle a plot and a small subplot, or a plot and a half.

Short stories get to the point and don’t have the time or space for long setups. They begin with a crisis or conflict right away and avoid describing how the conflict came about.

Stories, as a snapshot into the lives of the characters, avoid long character histories and descriptions. They have a few characters, so that the reader can identify with each character and keep them straight. Too many, and the story can become confusing.

Here are a few other rules about writing short stories (though rules are made to be broken, of course):

* Show, don’t tell with the action.

* Use one or very few settings.

* Use first or third-person, or two characters shifting point of view.

* Express a single theme, or message to get across to the readers.

Novels, which are 50,000 words or more from the definitions I’ve seen, include more material – characters, settings, plots and details – to sustain readers’ interest over several reading sessions, unless they are willing to sit for hours or an entire day. A short story, alternatively, can be consumed in one sitting in a few minutes or a couple of hours.

(Note: Last week, I talked about poetry as I spend a few weeks on different types of writing for my blog, 52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty. I won’t cover the types of writing I haven’t tried, like screenplays and plays, but will touch on my favorites, including personal essays, memoirs and news articles.)

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