Short stories. Some people love them, others can’t stand them. But no one can deny they’re an entirely different creature from novels.
This week, I’ve been judging entries for the ProjectREUTSway competition held during the month of November. Buried amid 144 short stories, I started to think about what exactly makes one “successful”. I think most of you know by now that I, myself, published 3, so this is a topic that hits very close to home. It’s also one I’ve never really stopped to think about. Until now. Because, let’s face it, short stories are strange. Similar to novels and yet completely dissimilar, they require a certain — almost magic — recipe to really shine. I don’t believe in the undefinable though, (at least not when it comes to writing) so let’s see if we can’t identify the exact ingredients that make short stories such a unique form of storytelling.
Short stories are often considered a novelist’s training wheels; the idea being that someone can learn the basics of storytelling through short stories and then graduate into novels. But that’s not exactly what happens. Because, in reality, they require two different skill sets to pull off well. A short story is not a truncated novel, nor is a novel an elongated, rambling short story. Rarely can the concept for one be turned successfully into the other. And yet people still try. Why? Because short stories have been given a bad rap. Novels take all the glory, leaving short stories to rot in creative writing jail like fiction offenders. They’re looked down on as an inferior form of narrative, an eighth grade diploma to the novel’s PHD. After all, the only difference between them is length, right?
There are three things a successful short story must have: brevity, focus, and telling. Yes, you heard me, telling. But before you get your knickers in a bunch, let me explain further.
Novelists are taught the value of brevity. But even the most refined novels still sprawl, meandering through details and settings and other things short story authors simply can’t afford. Literally every word matters in a short story. No detail is extraneous. If we mention the light blue collar on a random cat, you can bet that collar is important somehow.
The same holds true for the words themselves. Novelists are allowed to write sentences like this:
She paused, grabbing the handle of the stainless steel refrigerator and pulling it open with a subtle flick of her wrist.
(Hey, no comments on the quality. Clearly, I know that sentence is atrocious. I’m proving a point. 😉 )
That’s 21 words to say this:
She opened the refrigerator door.
Yes, that may be a bit exaggerated, but you see what I mean, I hope. When you only have maybe 5000 words of space, every letter has to serve a purpose. Successful short stories know this, and the language/storytelling is as finely honed as a scalpel. If it doesn’t somehow move the plot along, impart valuable information or absolutely have to exist, it doesn’t.
I’m a firm believer that every story should have a message, a reason for existing. But maybe that’s because I started out as a short story author. Whenever I come up with an idea, I identify the core message first, before the setting, characters, or even plot. For example, The Bardach is a story about identity, Spinning is about fate, and Confessions is about losing faith. Even Unmoving has a focal point. At its core, its about compassion. This type of focused narrative is one of the more notable differences between a short story and a novel.
Short stories are single-minded. Like a starving man spotting food, they keep their eyes on the prize. None of this wandering off into detours, flashbacks, subplots or other shenanigans that novels get away with. Nope, they have one message, one plot, one climatic moment that everything points to. And, interestingly enough, short stories are typically driven by an event, rather than a character. The focus is on the action, not the person doing it.
How does this translate into our recipe for success? Well, you’ll be able to feel the underlying drive in a really good short story. You’ll walk away from it remembering the message, not necessarily the characters. So make darn sure you know what you’re saying, both literally and subtextually.
All right. I know this is the one you were waiting for. After all the times “show, don’t tell” has been beaten into your head, you simply can’t believe I’d actually stand here and advocate telling, can you? Well, I’m not really.
See, the thing is, showing is still 100% better than telling. But, telling is allowed in a short story. Due to the limited amount of time you have to impart your narrative, there’s really no way around it. You don’t have the luxury of wasting thousands of words, or even hundreds, showing us the back-story. Nor can you illustrate anything directly outside the timeline of the main event, regardless how important it may be. So that only leaves one option — telling. You should still avoid the dreaded info-dump if you can, but slipping in the occasional line of summary, or a paragraph of back-story, won’t automatically earn you peer derision. Well, most of the time, anyway.
Successful short story authors are masters of knowing when to tell and when to show. (Which, by the way, I am not. Just wanted to clarify that in case anyone thought I was going to be cocky and throw myself on that list.) They give you just enough information — typically in the form of telling — to make their worlds/characters feel as fleshed out as a novel’s, but not so much that you really notice. They cover a lot of ground in a really short amount of time, making this the hardest skill on the list. It actually requires mastery of the other two to pull off, which is why I listed it last.
And there you have it; the anatomy of a successful short story. Learn how to control these three elements and your short fiction will stand out in a pile like little beacons. And let’s all try to stop viewing short stories as the lesser form of fiction. They’re not inferior. Just different.