Essential writing skills: tricks for nailing that short story

One of the biggest pitfalls when writing fiction is the notion that all fiction is fiction. If you can write short stories, you can write novels. Right? Actually…no.

Cyber Katherine Mansfield...I think...
Katherine Mansfield, seen here in cyber form. An extraordinary short-story writer. But not a novellist.

Yes, authors can do both – and often brilliantly. Look at Ernest Hemingway, one of my favourite authors. Or Isaac Asimov. Or Arthur C. Clarke.

But this isn’t because the skill set is the same. To the contrary – it isn’t. The reason these authors – and many others – shone in both fields is because they had mastered both forms. And they are very different forms. It’s like this…

1. Novels – lengthy works of fiction, usually 50,000+ words, tracing a significant ‘character arc’ for one or more major characters, through a plot with a defined introduction, exposition, pivot-points and conclusion. There is room for reasonable exposition, description and complexities of both character and plot.

2. Short stories – short fiction pieces of typically less than 5000 words and often as little as 500 – or less – which typically present a ‘snapshot’  – perhaps a single challenge for a single character –resolving with a single moment of revelation. Often they end with a humourous twist, a ‘payoff line’ that either explains or resolves a conundrum. The master of those, to my mind, was Sir Arthur C. Clarke.

These demand not just different structure but also different pacing. I recall one author – who was experienced at short stories – complaining that her first novel turned out like a lot of short stories jammed together. Well, obviously…

Want to write both? The first step is understanding that difference. The second – and there’s no way around this – is practice. Don’t think it’s easier to practice writing short stories because they are shorter. It’s not. They’re probably harder, because the key is what you leave out – not what you put in. Be prepared to work on them and throw away material. The snappier the better.

To my mind Ernest Hemingway was probably the master at it – though his famous ‘baby shoes’ six-worder is probably an apocryphal attribution. Not read it? Here it is:

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

I suppose we might call it ultra-flash fiction. Sharp, quick, poignant – and thought provoking. Which, really, is the key to any short story.

Do you write short stories and novels? What challenges have you faced?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, fun science, opinion and humour. Check it out.


8 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: tricks for nailing that short story

  1. Again, Matthew, you get right to the crux of the distinction between novels and short stories. For what it is worth, I am right there in sharing your “favorites” and agree that Katherine Mansfield’s short stories are wonderful but the novel was not her form.

    Believe I have mentioned that I have tried novels and short stories, and while I enjoyed the exercise of writing a novel, as a writer, I am more suited to shorter writing. For a while now I have been only pursuing the essay but am just returning to some short stories that I “roughed out” a while ago. They are stories I have wanted to write and finally have made the time. Again, I so enjoy these informative posts on writing.

    1. Thank you – and, as always, my very best wishes for every success with your writing. It’s interesting how different forms of writing suit different people; I actually started off writing and publishing short stories, but moved on from that to non-fiction (articles and books), which was possibly a curious journey, but I followed opportunities and that was where they took me. In a broader sense, I often wonder if it’s related to character type, or to mood, or to where authors are in their lives at the time. Or all of the above.

  2. A short story, as you rightly note, has to have a certain snap to it. In that regard I like your point about the “payoff line,” a sentence that sums up what’s happened or been resolved in the story.

    Once in a blue moon I can write short stories. I am a LOT more comfortable with the novel — even though it is a cranky, complex, idiosyncratic art form if ever there was one. There’s something about getting all those disjoint pieces to come together into a coherent whole I find eminently satisfying.

  3. The problem I’ve had with short stories is they tend to sound like excerpts from a novel. I like the format, I just need to remove enough to let it stand alone.

    1. To my mind short story writing is the most difficult genre. Brevity makes it all the harder. It’s where I started as a writer. But I never really mastered that form.

  4. Although I started starting novels as a kid, I really cut my teeth writing serially (and sometimes collaboratively) for storytelling games. Those posts were generally 6-800 words. When I returned to novels after grad school, it took me most of a year to get over building in pauses or mini-cliffhangers every 6-800 words.

    One challenge I find with short stories is that you have to simultaneously hook your readers, show them the stakes, and situate them more or less simultaneously. It becomes not about what just to leave out (which, as you say, is a hard thing to manage) but how to make everything you include do as much work as possible. That is, as you note, challenging to manage without lots of practice.

Comments are closed.