Short stories: Discuss.

All right blogosphere, twitterverse, facebookers…enlighten me.

Short stories. Explain.

No, seriously. With my draft still out there, I have been spending some time toying with ideas for Book 2 (and, um, Book 3), but I realize that this is the perfect opportunity for me to be working on some unrelated shorter fiction and seeing what happens. The problem is that, aside from the ghost story I posted on here (which I am admittedly very happy with) I really do find shorts to be a challenge.

I think the main issue stems from the fact that I am essentially a pantser when it comes to writing. My outlines are always extremely vague, if I have them at all. Yes, this does lead to the occasional crisis when I realize that I either don’t know what’s happening next or don’t know how to get to the next part I know is just beyond the wall.  But I can’t do that with short stories. With such a word count limitation, I don’t feel I can just sit down and let my imagination take over. I have to know not only where it is headed (the ending) but exactly how it’s going to get there.

Endings are perhaps the largest part of that struggle for me. How do you know when to stop? Where does it end? Some of the short stories I’ve read have endings that leave me breathless. I want to be able to do that! Can I? Maybe?

Yes. I’m sure I can. I’m sure I can do this. That being said, I’d still appreciate hearing your experiences, frustrations, successes and advice.

So, please, discuss. How long do yours tend to be? Is there a common, general length? How do you know where to end them? How do you stop yourself from going on (and on and on?)


19 thoughts on “Short stories: Discuss.

  1. For me, I write my short stories with a very narrow goal in mind, a specific ending. It’s also the only thing I pants anymore, short stories. I’m usually in the 3-7k range for length, though when I first started writing them, anything under 20k was an achievement. :p

    • That’s not REALLY pantsing. Sounds to me like you just don’t write the whole outline down. 😉

      Getting under 20K will be an achievement for me as well, though the ghost story gives me hope.

      • It’s pantsing compared to my novels, where I have the whole sequence of the story laid out before I even start writing. I just find that knowing the end helps me stay within word count, because I know what I’m working toward and what’s important.

        • See knowing the ending is where I usually get screwed up. I think, especially in shorts, the ending has to be absolutely brilliant. Those are the ones where I wind up putting down whatever anthology I’m reading and think about it, rather than just barrelling into the next one.

          • Ah, so your problem is really the pressure you’re putting on yourself. Hmm, I’m seeing a pattern here…

            Let the story, including the ending, be what it needs to be. Besides, I think people rarely recognize when they’ve done something like that themselves.

  2. I think the important thing about short stories is that 1) dialogue is sparse; and 2) sometimes it is okay to tell, rather than show. I know some authors who say, avoid dialogue in short stories at all costs. Also, there are different kinds of short stories. Some are a snapshot of someone’s life. Some have a plot. Some are deeply introspective, and some are pretty action-heavy. Some are about how two or more people interact with each other. Novels tend to try to do all of these things within the course of the story: plot, action, reaction, introspection, world-building (not something generally seen in short stories), but short stories tend to focus on just one or two of these because of time and word constraints.

  3. Emily: I am not a writer, but I am a reader of the form. I think a good short story is better than any novel, but is wickedly hard to write. I applaud your interest and I think you should try, even if the stories end in a drawer or just provide the foundation for a novel (although that should not be the aim – a perfect short story needs no expansion). It is like a poet writing sonnets, even if her preference is for longer form poetry, the discipline is great for her development.
    So, as a reader rather than a writer, I have no short story writing tips, but I do have short story reading tips:
    First, Science Fiction: Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, JG Ballard
    Big names: Edgar Allen Poe, J. D. Salinger, Stephen King, Earnest Hemmingway
    Canadian: Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, “Dropped Threads”, Robertson Davies (although perhaps more sketches)
    We have most of these (and more) in Stratford, feel free to borrow.

    • Wickedly hard to write for sure. I like the idea of using them for discipline…that might help shut up my inner “This isn’t perfect!” critic. I’m reading an anthology of steampunk shorts right now, but I’d love to borrow some (or all) of the ones you mentioned.

  4. Read lots of Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, and Anton Chekhov. They’ll give you an idea of how a short story feels, gets introduced, and wraps up. You could join me in my Fall Goals and read the 201 Anton Chekhov stories available for free. He’s known as the master. His stuff is like 100+ years old and still pretty amazing.

    • I’ve actually read a lot of Chekhov…my major in university was world literature and that involved a lot of nights reading Russian Lit stories. I’ll definitely check out the others. I want to stay in my genre, but the basics usually transcend genre.

  5. Short stories are one of the formats in which I don’t mind being dropped into the middle of something without an explanation, especially if there isn’t an immediate resolution at the end of the story, making it seem like it’s a scene from a larger tale.

    This might also be an opportunity to expand a bit on some of the aspects of your novel that you don’t feel belong in the actual book (of course, if you’re trying to get completely away from that story line for a bit, then don’t write short stories in that universe); e.g. I think it would be interesting to know more about the first character who was killed, what her childhood was like, if she had a particularly close relationship with her father, if she had suffered other tragedies long before your novel started. Or you could write about events that are taking place at the same time as the novel, but from a completely different perspective; e.g. the thoughts of a group of people at a tavern after attending the “revelation” of a wicked plot to invade their home (these examples are too specific, but they are just examples, not a request for a particular piece of short fiction).

    The Spider Robinson way of writing short stories might also work for you (using the same setting, and same main characters as you write each short story, but having a different issue or concern for each tale). “The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences” series contains two full novels with the two main characters, but also has several short stories set with other agents in the Ministry, from different periods in its history. I could also lend you my Norton Sci-Fi Anthology next time I see you, if you would like, it’s a good variety of short stories; even if it’s not steampunk or fantasy, I think you could find some inspiration in it.

    • I don’t know…I think in the universe in the novel, there might be too much explanation needed, no? But then again, if I’m just doing it to keep practising, maybe not. That’s an interesting idea, I’ll play around with it for sure. It’s not even that I want to “get away” from my novel, it was just a chance to work with something else, you know?
      The Spider Robinson method sounds a lot like the Charles DeLint method, and I’ve always been a fan of his. I don’t know that I want to risk borrowing another book from you though! I know how much Norton’s cost. 😉

      • I think it’s a hardcover Em (I also think I bought it used), I’ll have to dig it up to make certain. I’m not even certain if it has the dust jacket anymore, so it’s not a big deal if it looks read (if you highlight in it or dog-ear pages, that’s another story). ;p

        • I didn’t highlight or dogear your other one, I just cracked the spine! If the spine is okay on this one, I guess I might be safe. 😉

      • Also, I think if you choose to write in book universe, you just need to supply enough explaination for the immediate story you are trying to present. I guess it would depend on what you decide you want to focus on, and how much the main plot of the novel would bear on that short story.

        • I more meant the technical terms for the spirit and the aura and the like (though there has been so much confusion around the lately that I really am considering just changing it to “spirit” and “aura”. LOL!)

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