How short story writing can sharpen your craft
Short fiction may be concise but it is no less powerful. Arguably the most famous piece of short fiction is by Ernest Hemingway, who wrote this moving story in just six words:
‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’
Short stories, however, can be various lengths from micro fiction (under 275 words) to flash fiction (500 to 1,000 words) to full short stories that typically reach up to 10,000 words.
You don’t need to worry about lengths unless you are looking to enter a competition or get your story published so begin with an idea and see where it leads.
Time is precious
Writing short fiction isn’t necessarily easy, and sometimes making stories concise may be harder, but it’s certainly quicker than longer fiction, especially at the drafting stage.
Lots of people are short on time, juggling any combination of work, kids, pets, household chores. Finding time to write can be hard. Many more are short on mind space. Short stories can therefore feel much more achievable. They can also be hugely satisfying due to the sense of achievement you can feel when finishing them.
Here are two ways to get a first draft finished in one sitting:
- Time – Set a timer but be realistic. Depending on how fast you write/type, I would say an average is about 100 to 200 words for every 10 to 15 minutes. Decide roughly how long you want your story to be, set the timer and go!
- Length – Decide the number of pages you want to fill, possibly one or two, whether this be in a notebook or on a screen. Start and don’t stop until they’re full.
For both options, keep going until the end. Give yourself permission to write badly or brilliantly but remember to keep going until that first draft is finished.
Keep it simple
There are a few things to bear in mind when writing short fiction:
- Characters – Avoid having too many characters: one or two, maybe three, ideally, so your story doesn’t become too crowded.
- Description – You won’t have the space for lengthy descriptions. Give only one or two brief details about characters and other items. Make every word work hard.
- Setting – Limit your locations and keep scene-setting brief. In many cases, setting isn’t important. You could simply mention where the characters are and move on.
- Story arc – A strong story arc is just as vital as it is for longer forms. Make sure there’s an element of change, or a shift in perspective, no matter how small.
And, a couple of extra tips:
- Know the end before you start – This isn’t a must but it’s one of the best pieces of advice I was given and can help you to keep the story on track.
- Write long, then pare back – Predominantly, writers of short fiction start with longer first drafts then cut words and tighten as they edit.
Try something new
Short stories offer you the opportunity to try new styles, genres and approaches before committing to working with them longer-term. It’s a chance to get experimental.
Have you always fancied writing sci-fi? Try it. Do you always write in the third person point of view? A diary story will force you to write in the first. Are all your protagonists male? Try writing a story from the perspective of another gender.
Play with forms too. Can you tell a story in the form of a list? Or in the style of a newspaper article? Or framed by your great-grandmother’s recipe for fruit cake? Whatever it is, try it.
If you have a longer project in hand, you could take a few of your characters and put them in a new place or situation. It’s a great way to get to know them even more.
No writing is wasted, even if it’s not used.
However, it’s generally easier to let go of a piece of short fiction that’s not working than a novel you spent every spare minute working on for more than a year. Why not start with a short story and see if it leads to something bigger?
Author Mandy Berriman, for example, wrote a short story called ‘Home’ for the Stories for Homes anthology which became a novel that was published by Doubleday.
Experiment with short fiction today and enjoy a mini adventure.
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