Friday, May 18, 2012

The Craft of Writing Short Stories

Or Why I Stick to Writing Novels

The title of this article, I realise, is provocative. It would seem to imply that I consider short stories to be inferior examples of the writer’s art: practice works produced by novices, or the second-rate oeuvres of mere dilettantes incapable of the sustained creative effort required to produce a full-length novel.

In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Painful as it is for me to make this confession, the reason that I don’t (or very rarely) write short stories because (in general) I lack the intense, tightly-focused imagination needed to write a good one.

The question now arises: what are the attributes of a good short story?

Opinions here will differ, depending on who is addressing the question. A writer of Literary Fiction (who has read and admired the works of Raymond Carver) will contend that a good short story is one which evokes the cultural ambiance in which the writer is writing. By this standard of measurement, the excellence of a particular work depends not on plot or character development, but on the writer’s use of language and imagery to generate mood and atmosphere.

By contrast, writers of genre fiction (mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy) devote the lion’s share of their attention to plot and character development (elements which don’t particularly interest Literary Fiction pundits). By these standards of measurement, the primary virtue of a good short story is a compact, tightly-orchestrated sequence of events, enriched with dramatic irony and governed by an underlying pattern of cause and effect.

Of course the best short stories – classics like O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi or Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber or Bret Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat – provide readers with the whole package. The critical issue has to do with the question of scale – the difference (if you like) between painting a mural and painting a miniature. You’re using all the same elements of your chosen medium. But in the case of the smaller work, you have to use those elements with the precision of a diamond-cutter to produce a real gem.

In writing short stories, the modus operandi is to cultivate a Spartan attitude when it comes to detailing. More specifically:

1) When describing people, places, etc., retain only the very best of your descriptive passages. (Relegate merely “pretty good” descriptive elements to a reserve file on your computer.)

2) Dismiss any and all non-essential characters. (Even a walk-on can become a distraction.)

3) Keep your plot on a strict diet of necessity. (Don’t allow yourself to indulge in any plot speculations - however intriguing - that may weigh the story down with non-essential complications.)

4) Look for opportunities to take short cuts when it comes to advancing significant plot and/or character developments. (Do we really need to know how Leyla spends her time when she’s not with either Demon-Ted or Angel-Jim?)

If you have the self-discipline as a writer to keep your short story under tight control and still produce a piece with all the ingredients necessary to provide a good read, you have my sincere and unfeigned compliments

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.

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  1. What a wonderful addition to our series on short stories. Thanks for pointing out that the best short stories incorporate mood and atmosphere as much as plot.

  2. Oeuvres and dilettantes ... wow, two words in the same sentence that I had to look up ... usually there is only one.

  3. This is such good advice, but when you think about the tips, wholly applicable to writing a finely-tuned novel, too!

  4. This piece nails economy of words, whittling of detail, strategic but Spartan character development, and adherence to the straight and narrow as essential elements of a great short story. I loved the comparison of the miniature to the mural — that says it all. Thank you, Debbie Harris, for this insightful article. And thank you, Dani, for posting it.

  5. For a reader and writer of short fiction, you hit the nail square on the head. Thank you.

  6. Great list, Debby. A way to achieve #s 1, 3, and 4 simultaneously is to make sure any description pulls double duty. It should never be just description (he wore a brown beard), but also tell the reader something about the world of story (he was the only man in town who wore a beard), the character (he let crumbs collect in his beard), or advance the plot (he had grown the beard for exactly 1,095 days, but when the clock struck midnight on the third anniversary of his daughter's death, he shaved it).

    As Dani said, I also appreciate this technique in a novel, though.

  7. Actually, this is good advice for writers of both short and long fiction. Thank you.

  8. Great advice, timely for me too, as I've been reading and critiquing short stories lately while I work on my own. I've noticed that shorts labeled by the authors as "literary" have tended to be more vignettes than stories, with lots of evocative mood and atmosphere, and very little conflict moving toward a resolution. Is this a trend, or is it typical of "literary" fiction, I wonder?

  9. Oh, yes, it is difficult to write a good short story, and I love them. The best have a great "pop" at the end that surprises and makes you think. I am in love with flash fiction (and flash nonfiction) lately and enjoy traditional haiku. Of course, Twitter is the ultimate challenge for those who love shorts.

  10. I find it very complicated to write short stories, so I, too, stick with the novel. My characters tend to need that room to grow.

  11. For me, I prefer the intensity, the imagination, the succinctness of writing the short story. A novel gives me trouble -- too long. I suppose I might be saying writing the novel allows me too much "freedom."


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