On Short Stories: Part 3/3
By Cassidy Ward
Here we are again. I hope you were able to walk away from the last two posts with at least one thing which will help you in crafting your own stories. Writing isn’t the lottery, when one of us wins we all win. Each of us is enriched by the stories others tell. I want you to play the game because I want you to win.
This time around I want to summarize some other tips that have helped me to develop my craft and write better stories. You may be familiar with them, but they bear repeating.
1) Read widely.
Read short stories both in and outside of your desired genre. Read novels. Read news articles and non-fiction books. Read cereal boxes. Listen to strangers and friends tell stories. Spy on people sitting near you on a train. Pay attention to the world and the way narratives form. Feed your compost pile. Something you encounter today might be the seed that blooms into a story tomorrow. You can’t do anything in a vacuum and there’s no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. At most, you can only get out of a thing what you put into it. So pump as much material into your head as you can and see what comes out the other side.
2) Read twice. Read the first time for enjoyment.
Turn off the part of you that breaks things down and allow yourself to enjoy a good story, well told. Reading, watching movies, listening to audiobooks should be fun. If the act of storytelling ceases to be fun, you’re unlikely to be able to do it well. Don’t turn this thing you love into just work.
Read the second time like you’re a crime scene investigator. Examine the way stories are built. Pick them apart. Try your best to see how the trick was done and what you can learn from it. This time it is work. A well-told tale was likely crafted by someone who’s put in their 10,000 hours and their one-million words. They’ve received their doctorate in storytelling and when you read their work, you’re studying at their feet. Take notes if you have to. Pay attention. Learn everything you can.
3) Remember that stories are more about feelings than they are events.
Think of all the times you tried to express to someone why you loved a story only to end by saying “I’m not doing it justice, but you have to read it.” That’s because you were telling them what happened when what you were trying to express was how it made you feel. And when you write your own stories, do the same thing. Events are only events. They only matter insomuch as they serve your goal. Which is to make the reader laugh or cry or throw your book across the room.
4) Figure what you want to say and the best way to say it.
What's the theme? Not the plot or the climax, the message. How can you punch it quickly and efficiently? Themes and emotions are like primary colors, they are more easily seen when drastically juxtaposed. Figure out how you can build your world to highlight the thing you’re trying to say. If your character wants a glass of water, put them on a desert planet, literally or figuratively. A bright light is best seen in a dark room.
5) Start as near the ending as possible.
This might mean writing a draft and then discovering what you can cut to get the heart of it. Neil Gaiman talks about short stories saying they are like the last chapters of novels he didn’t write. That isn’t to say they can’t actually be the beginning of a larger story. Some of my favorite shorts have gone on to become novellas or novels, by asking what might happen after the story ends. But the point remains. You’ve got limited page space. Trim what’s unnecessary. Fold the needed elements in. Show them the tip of the iceberg while making sure they know there’s a lumbering hunk of ice beneath.
6) Remember, a short story is still a story and it must be complete.
That isn't to say it shouldn't suggest more to the world you've built. It absolutely should. But it shouldn't feel like an unfinished piece. It's not a short story only because it's short, it must also be a story. Don’t cheap out on the essential elements: character, emotion, and a good ending. It doesn’t have to be happy, but it must be satisfying.
7) Be wary of rules, even these ones.
The only rule is to tell a good tale, with a beginning, middle, and end. If you can do that and you can make the reader feel, you've won. If you can do that while breaking the mold, all the better.
8) Ideas are easy.
Finishing is hard. There’s a book I’ve been writing for the past several months, between other projects, and it seems, sometimes, as if it will never be finished. That’s the hardest part of writing, getting to the end. Short fiction is wonderful in this way. It’s the sort of thing you can crack out in a week, or a few days, or one really magical evening. For the new writer or the writer who’s been away for a while or who’s struggling through the tougher parts of this craft, they can be just the thing to reignite your fire, to deliver to you the unique joy of finishing, to remind you why you loved writing in the first place.
9) One thing.
A short story can be as complex or as simple as you want it to be, so long as it’s short. And short can mean different things to different people, or different markets, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. But all that’s really required is that one thing happens.
If you’re trying to get published, to make your first sale, or see your name in print for the first time, the short story is, in my estimation, the best bet. A novel is a considerable undertaking in terms of time, energy, and headspace. Short stories are the type of thing you could write fifty (or more) of in a year if you were inclined to do so. And if you think of submissions as if you’re playing the roulette wheel, placing your chips down on fifty different spaces is a much surer bet than putting your everything on one. And in the game of publishing, winning is winning. Besides, each story teaches you something about yourself, about the way you write and the way you think, about the way to build a story. So even if, after every turn of the wheel, you walk away with nothing, you’ve still won. Because you’re better equipped for the next time you step up to the table.
Cassidy is a journalist and author of fiction. As a journalist, he has written for Syfy, Observer, StarTrek.com, and Big Shiny Robot. His popular Science Behind the Fiction column has been read more than a million times. As an author, his award-winning short story “One Among the Flock” was published in the anthology A Little Wrong. His debut novella, "Ravel," is available now.
You can keep up with all of his stories and journalism on his website, and find his shortest writings (by virtue of character limits) on Twitter.