The Art of Writing Short Stories

by limebirdlaura

Every year my husband and I go to a gaming convention called Gen Con. He goes to game, I mostly go just to get out-of-town and see what fun I can get into while I’m there. It’s known as “the best four days in gaming”, and any kind of geekery you can imagine can be found.

It took me a few years to realize how big the writing community was at Gen Con, however. In the back of this massively ginormous convention hall is an area for artists and authors. As luck would have it, little ole me found writing seminars being held by various authors at the Con. Huzzah! I even got up at 9 a.m. to go to one! To put that into context, I get off work at 3 in the morning, 9 a.m. and I aren’t usually good friends.

One seminar I went to dealt with writing short stories. The panel consisted of four authors, with admittedly differing views and opinions – which is a good thing! So without further ado, here are a few tidbits of wisdom the panel showered upon up on the art of writing short stories –

  • There is no way a great short story could be stretched into a full length novel if done well. (The other panelists disagreed with this sentiment).
  • Short stories should be very focused, you should never feel like you’re getting ready to settle in for a long read.
  • Short stories have a greater emotional punch at the end, the ride is fast and the end should hit you hard.
  • When starting the story, start as thick into the action as you can. (This reminds me of a screenwriting sentiment imparted on me by various professors, start the story at the last possible moment.)
  • You should establish tension immediately – you don’t have several pages to draw the reader in, they need to be drawn in right from the start.
  • Short fiction can be a great place for authors to explore different genres or story types than they are used to. It can be an amazing tool to experiment and find your voice.
  • Always write something you want to read yourself.
  • Finally, one quote a panelist said that I really loved – With writers, there is no right way!

Someone in the crowd asked a panelist what their favorite short stories were. They said Engraved on the Eye by Saladin Ahmed. I haven’t read it myself, but I just took a look-see at Amazon and it appears to be free for the Kindle at the moment! I’m always up for free, so I thought I would pass that along as well.

Does anyone agree or disagree with the panelists? What are your favorite short stories or collections?

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25 Responses to “The Art of Writing Short Stories”

  1. Big fan of short stories here, and I agree with most of the comments. I think any story can be added to and then made into novel length if it’s interesting and the writing is good enough. None of mine qualify for that mind you, lol, but I’ve read many shorts that I really wished they would continue and make longer!

    • I’m a great big fan of short stories. I’m kinda surprised with our A.D.D. world that we live in now that they’ve not just exploded in popularity!

      Don’t sell your self short Neeks!!

  2. My biggest issue with a lot of short stories is that they don’t go anywhere. They meander and go this way and that way, but frequently they seem to be something other than a story. Most of the comments are good advice, probably for any form of fiction writing, not just short stories. The one comment I agree with the most is about short stories being an opportunity to write in new genres. I’d expand it to include using different techniques to write stories. The short story I just completed was told entirely in dialogue. The story I’m about to complete now is told in first person shifting between the three main characters. I don’t generally get that adventurous with novel-length stories.

    • That’s a great idea, to experiment with different writing techniques and styles with short stories! Sometimes it’s hard to carry something like all dialogue with a novel, but getting it out in a short story could work well! Thanks for the comment 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on Cheesecake Summer and commented:
    My post over at Limebird Writers!

  4. I agree with the first point that a short story CAN be lengthened to a novel. In a novel you can add more substance to the short story, always restricted by word count.

    Thanks for the sharing. 🙂

  5. I like to be intrigued, and I don’t exactly know what that means. {It’s good thing I don’t write for a living!}
    Terry

    • I agree, I liked to be intrigued too! If you like short stories check out Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts. It’s horror…but some of the stories are just flat out weird! I loved it.

  6. Here are my (rambling) thoughts on the different points:

    1) I agree; short stories and novels are different animals. You may be able to write a novel based on a short story, but it would not be the same story.

    2) Not sure about the second part, yes a short story should be focused – but sometimes they can give the impression of something larger, you can come away thinking you’ve read something bigger.

    3) I agree, but it has to be a ‘natural’ emotional punch. There was a trend a while back where many stories seemed to be set-ups for a twist in the tale at the end. While some can be very effective, I feel that staring out with the twist in mind can lead to the first part of a story being so-so. While the end of a short story should be strong, that doesn’t necessarily mean a “punch” or even a “twist”. Sometimes a sense of satisfaction that everything fits together and ‘all is right with the world’ gives a strongly emotional finish.

    4) One way to start in the thick of the action is to write the first draft straight off, and then be brutal when you edit it – how much can be cut away from the start?

    Another way is to do what Gabriel García Márquez did in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” where the novel opens with “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

    I tried to do something similar in my short story “Carine” with “It would be difficult to pinpoint the day that Carine decided that she was going to jump from the tower into the immeasurable depths; but the signs where there even as a small child.”

    5) Not sure that I agree with creating tension from the start (although number 3 does suggest this). Some great stories start out almost mundane and it is the contrast with that later on that packs the punch. Short stories can be (if one is looking to win the Hugo Award, for example) 7,500 words long, that does give you space to introduce the characters before adding the tension.

    6) Totally agree that short stories allow an author to explore different genres. I have only written two out-and-out horror stories, one a flash fiction and one a short story, I don’t know if I will ever write a horror novel.

    7) This is not just short stories; I think that writing to the market in exclusion to what you would want to read is a slippery slope; that way leads to formulaic writing.

    8) Agreed! It is whatever works for you

    P.S. As we are talking about short stories, I was very pleased with the narration done for my short story “Aquarians on the White House Lawn” which was podcast last week. If you want to listen to it it can be found at http://www.starshipsofa.com/2013/10/30/starshipsofa-no-311-anaea-lay-and-dennis-m-lane/

    • Wow Dennis GREAT comment!! This should be its own post!

      I sort of have an A.D.D. problem when it comes to ideas, I’ll get a few pages out then bounce to something different, so I decided I’d cheat a bit at NaNo this year and write a short story collection all totallying 50,000 – and what I’ve found with a couple of my already completed stories is that they feel more like elaborate outlines to a larger story. I wasn’t expecting that, so to go along with your point for 1, I can definitely see some of mine re-written novel length based on the shorts.

      I will check the narration out, thank you for that link!

  7. With any of these writing rules, or words of wisdom, or whatever we like to call them – I think we should see them as inspiration where they inspire us, if that makes sense. Some of them will resonate with us, and perhaps help us at certain times in our writing, but even the people who say these things would no doubt find examples of stories they really like that go against them. Each to their own I say. Last year I discovered the short stories of E.M. Forster, and loved them, he went to the same school that that my man went to, but that’s not why I loved the stories! I would particularly recommend his story “The Machine Stops” a sci-fi story written in 1909 that has really stood the test of time; it’s quite long for a short story, at over 12,000 words, but do try and read it Laura if you can. (Just to add, he wasn’t at the school at the same time as my man if you’re wondering! Hehe).

    • Oh I absolutely agree with you there – I don’t know how many times in college the professors would tell us what to do and what not to do and sometimes it just drove me crazy that they’d hold writing to strict rules like that. Like any art I feel you can have certain things to do to make it better (or worse of course) but to make the guidelines so strict is counterproductive, I think. I just thought of this time in the 1st grade, I was 6 years old and terrible at coloring in the lines, but my teacher actually circled any color that went out side of the lines, and any white space that didn’t have color on the inside of the lines. On my report card all year I got a failing grade for art…. I dunno why but that just made me think of that – maybe my 6 year old art style was white-space-outside-the-lines-deco (I suddenly realized I just have no idea what I’m talking about anymore…I should probably stop talking….)

      Oh I love sci-fi I’ll definitely take a look at that ! Thanks for the suggestion! ….. you mean to tell me your man isn’t 120 years old?!

  8. I like the way the panelists had differing views on some of these subjects. It gives me some hope that, when I break some rules, I’m not alone. 🙂

    • I agree! I love going to panels like this and listening to all the different points of view that helped people succeed in different ways.

  9. My evil twin, Dementia, loves advice, seeing if she can go against it and be successful. My other twin, Pollyanna, loves advice, too, and follows it down multiple pathways. Is this the reason I don’t know how many of me there are?

  10. Excellent points. the one I enjoyed the most was, “Write something you want to read.” It is one thing to have something to say, it is a whole different matter determining whether or not it is interesting or worth reading at all.

    Your thoughts on this?

    • I definitely agree, if it’s not going to be interesting while trying to write it then no one is going to be interested in reading it.

  11. I wanted to say thank you for posting this. I have followed this blog for a while, kept this post in particular in my email inbox, and referred to it often while I wrote my first short story. Several weeks ago I entered my short story into the South Jersey Writers Group Fall Contest and it WON! I received a cash prize and my story, Crossing Lines, will appear in their 2014 anthology. Thank you again. Happy holidays. 🙂

    Jordanna East

  12. I think that point about tension is critical. Agents used to advise to start with action until they got tons of violent scenes. What they meant was tension. Internal or external. 🙂

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