The Shortest Way to Sweet: Part II

Or, How Writing Short Can Help You Write Good

In my first blog post about short stories, I explored how I overcame my own reservations and learned to love short fiction. Now, in this second blog post, I’m going to talk about how to write short and good, and how those lessons can be applied to longer fiction.

The crucial thing about a short story is that it doesn’t have many words in it, compared to a novel. But a good short story will have just as much emotional heft to it as a novel, even though the reader hasn’t spent much time in the company of the characters, learned that much about the setting, or followed a plot through many twists and turns. ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ by Ursula K. Le Guin is unquestionably one of the greatest and most influential short stories of the twentieth century, (you can read it online here) and yet it doesn’t have any named characters or much in the way of an actual plot. Nothing really happens in this story, and yet nobody who has read it will ever forget it. It has inspired a number of other works, from an episode of Star Trek to a story by N K Jemisin called ‘The Ones Who Stay and Fight’, in her collection ‘How Long ’til Black Future Month?’

I can’t claim I can reliably reproduce the absolute gut punch of Le Guin’s writing, but I have written short stories that have made people cry, so I guess I have some kind of qualification to talk about the craft of writing short. Here are some points to get us started:

A short story is not the first chapter of a novel. It needs to stand alone, complete unto itself. It can be part of a wider universe, but it needs to be understood by someone who doesn’t know anything about that universe.

A short story needs a story. It can’t just be a description of a person, or a place, or a scrap of world-building. But that story doesn’t have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, or a neat three-act structure, or anything like that. What it does need is some sense of change and movement, even if only implied. More on this in a minute…

When writing short, there are no words to waste. Any dialogue, any description, anything else, needs to be in service of what the story is trying to achieve. You need to decide on what the story is about, and streamline everything else.

Having said that a story needs to be about one thing, it does need some kind of variation. A story that’s purely one-note will quickly get boring, like a canapé with only one ingredient. Happiness needs sadness to provide contrast, hope needs despair, and so on.

Beyond these simple points, short stories can have endless variety in structure, format, complexity, and everything else. They don’t necessarily need to have identified characters or detailed settings. They can be all-dialogue or have no dialogue at all. But there’s one thing I’m increasingly convinced is crucial to a memorable and effective short story. Or rather two things: a situation and a choice.

I think a short story needs to present the reader with a situation — some kind of problem, or emergency, or ethical dilemma. It could be an entire dystopian setting, or a simple issue encountered as part of a character’s normal day. Whatever it is, there needs to be a sense that a resolution is required, whether that’s finding a way of righting an injustice or deciding where to file a new acquisition in a library. There needs to be a sense of something poised, a change about to happen, a rock in a streambed. It can’t just be a ‘and this is how it is’. Even The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, a famous short story that relies for the most part on its reveal to the reader of the truth behind the eponymous lottery, has a sense that things could change, that the villagers are continuing a tradition that might not last forever.

As part of this, I think a short story needs a choice to be made. This choice could be made half-way through the story, with a structure of setup-choice-consequences. But it could also be made before the story even starts, with the characters now having to deal with the aftermath. It could also come right at the end, with the consequences left to the reader’s imagination. Or the choice could even be made after the end of the story, with the reader left to ponder what they would do in this situation. This is what Le Guin does so well, with the implied question: would YOU walk away from Omelas?

However a short story is structured, I think it needs a sense of setup and payoff, of change happening, of someone somewhere making a choice that matters, even if only to themselves.

That, at least in my personal opinion and experience as a writer and reader, is how to write short and write good. The next question is, can these lessons be applied to long-form writing (which is, lest we forget, where the real money is)?

The answer is yes, sort-of, in the same way that learning to make a great amuse-bouche will help you with cooking a meal. Food is food, but it’s also true that intense flavours that might work well in a small bite could be overwhelming in a larger dish.

How can writing short help you write long?
First up, at the sentence level, writing short helps you to not waste your words. In a novel you have more words to spare, true, but if you use them unwisely you’ll bore your readers. Knowing how to use them well will help you write snappy sentences and keep attention fully engaged.

Then, at the scene level, experience with short stories will help you figure out how to convey the point of a given scene and bring it to an elegant close once that point has been made. Sometimes starting writers (including me, I’ve definitely been guilty of this) write lots of meandering scenes of people just hanging out. Such scenes aren’t always bad, as they can serve to introduce the characters and setting, and in a novel you have the space to include a few of them. But it’s better to keep them to a minimum (both in number and in total word count) and have more scenes where something actually happens: new information is revealed, a conflict is set up, someone is killed by means of a poison-ink letter delivered to the wrong person…

Finally, at the whole-book level, I think that writing short stories can help you bring variety of mood and texture to a long-form work, with different chapters providing different settings and styles of narrative – especially useful if you want to write alternating point-of-view characters and/or with chapters in different times or places.

So that’s how writing short can help you write long. But are there any ways in which experience writing short can be unhelpful, or even actively counter-productive, in writing long?

The most obvious pitfall is that, while a short story can provide a quick glimpse of a life, a situation, and a world, with many things left to the imagination, a novel needs to be fully developed. Sure, you can leave some Tolkien-esque unattainable vistas and you don’t need to explain every tiny thing, but you do need to have a story that makes sense and comes to a satisfying conclusion, and a setting that feels fleshed-out. Short fiction can’t really help you with developing a story rich and detailed enough to fill an entire book. The only thing that can really help with that is… um… writing a book.