My philosophy has always been that anyone who considers themselves a writer should write short stories.
Many best-selling novelists seem to agree. Lee Child just released a book of his shorts, Joyce Carol Oates has written tons of them, and Stephen King has several books of his shorter works.
You might wonder why these very successful writers would take the time away from their bread and butter–novels, to craft a ten or twenty page story.
I’m guessing here, but I believe they do it because it helps keep their name alive with the public in-between books, and they’re just plain fun to write.
These, (and a few other reasons,) are why we should write them as well, even if our passion is crafting novels.
Although I mentioned authors who write short stories, there are also many who find them difficult.
In my humble opinion, I think that ‘difficulty,’ has a lot to do with the type of writer you are. No, not panster or outliner. I’m referring to whether you are a long writer or short writer.
How do you tell which one you are?
Well, when there’s a phone call and you have to leave a message for someone, do you write—“Bill Harrison called,” or something like “Bill Harrison called, and talked about his daughter, and how she’s doing at school and that her birthday is coming up next week, and that in two weeks she’s going on a field trip to Toledo.”
I’m kind of kidding here, but you can see the difference.
In our society, most people are taught at a young age to write long. Essays have to be a certain number of words, book reports have to be this many pages. When we have to write short, many people are at a disadvantage.
While, I agree that writing long is a useful skill, I believe that you need to temper it with the ability to write less. In some books–even some well-known ones–I find that writers tend to over-describe. They give the reader too much information that doesn’t move the story forward.
We must know when we are writing longer with purpose, and when the longer writing is not serving a purpose.
So how do we learn how to write short, especially when it’s been drilled into most of our brains since we were kids?
Let me tell you a bit about me. I’m actually the opposite of most people. Even as a youngster I was a short writer. I was fascinated by humor, and would often speak in comedic one-liners to my friends. At school, however, I had trouble writing enough for my assignments. The good news was that skill lead me into writing jokes for many comedy performers.
After a time I moved into short story writing. Because I was already writing one liners, I took to it fairly easily. I immediately figured out that most jokes are just tiny stories.
For example, a famous comedian talked about her daughter on TV, saying she tried to be as nice as possible to her as one day she might need her liver.
If you played with this joke you could turn it into a story about an aging woman who’s not healthy. She hates her next door neighbor but pretends to be nice because she might need her liver one day. This could be a murder mystery, a love story or some other genre.
Here’s another example–“I put my hand in some cement and felt another hand.”
That could easily be turned into a horror story about a man who inherits a house in a bad neighborhood. He reaches through a hole in the wall and touches a hand.” (This is a great exercise to try, by the way!)
So, in my early stories, a joke was sometimes my inspiration. But eventually ideas for short stories just came to me.
It was a different situation when I tried my hand at novels. I didn’t have a clue how I would write a book that was sixty thousand or more words.
In the first attempt, I had trouble making the chapters long enough. Some of them were one or two pages long. One chapter, I’m embarrassed to say was a paragraph.
When I finally completed the book, it was only two hundred pages. I had finished the actual story, but because I had short descriptions, minimal dialogue etc, the novel didn’t come out long enough.
The only way I could increase its page count was to go over and over it again and again, trying to figure out what words I could put in, or what subplots to add.
It was a very time consuming and boring process. I must have gone over that first book about fifty times! I really hated doing it this way.
Eventually though I got it up to three hundred and twenty five pages.
With each book that I’ve written, however, the process has become easier and easier. I eventually realized that writing long was simply a muscle I had to work.
The same is true for those of you who are long writers. You simply have to develop the muscle to write shorter. And if you keep at it eventually it will come.
It’s a worthwhile goal because writing short stories will help you a great deal if you plan to write novels. Here are a few of the benefits.
Shorts show us the importance of the idea
For a short story to work, the idea must be concise and clear. You don’t have much time to tell the reader what happens and you have to make sure everyone understands what the story is about early on. This is definitely helpful when working on a novel.
We learn what we need in our story and what we don’t
When we’re writing the first draft of a book, we’re tossing everything into the mix. And that’s fine. Knowing how to write short, however, makes us more sensitive to what we actually need to have in our story. We can see what keeps the reader focused and what takes her off course.
They teach us that we have to build character quickly
In a short story, as I’ve mentioned, you don’t have a lot of time. So we learn to how to create riveting characters in just a few lines, instead of describing all the things this person did or said. It helps us to do more showing rather than telling, As well, short stories help us to narrow down the character descriptions to the strongest visual images.
Writing shorts helps us improve dialogue and narration
We see the places where we need to take out the passive words, and add in more active ones. This helps us to notice more of these elements in our novel drafts.
So, as you can see short stories help us improve in a number of areas. However, I think one of the most important reasons to write them is that they’re just plain fun. I don’t want you to miss out on that fun. So come to my workshop, ‘Crafting the Short Story,’ on June 19th. I know you’ll have a blast!
Steve Shrott’s short stories have appeared in numerous print publications including Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and Flame Tree Publishing’s hard cover Mystery and Crime compilation. His work has appeared in twelve anthologies—several produced by Sisters in Crime. Steve’s most recent story, The Writer, will appear in their upcoming anthology, entitled, Fish out of Water. He has had two humorous mystery novels published, Audition For Death, and Dead Men Don’t Get Married.