The Cussedness of Short Stories

I am not here today to post writing advice.  Today, I am here to post about an aspect of writing that is incredibly difficult for me.  Call it a rant, call it a cry for help…whatever.  So these calls for short stories keep coming to my attention…short stories for anthologies with absolutely awesome themes (I can blame my publisher, 3 Fates Press, for 2 out of the 3 painfully cool themes).  And short stories, for me, are like pulling teeth.  Ask me for a novel any day – I mean, it’ll take a year to write and another year to edit, but I can come up with the material – no problem!  But a short story is a different animal.

“Nonsense,” you say.  “Surely a short story is much easier than a novel!  It’s short.  A novel is long!  It’s simple A novel is complex!  It only needs one conflict and one climax.  A novel needs many!”  Ah.  Yes, all these things are true.  But therein lies the difficulty.  I feel claustrophobic about short stories.  I have to have enough conflict to make a story, but not enough to draw it out.  I have to develop and push the characters – but very succinctly.  I have to make the story world vivid, but I can’t put in anything that isn’t directly relevant to the forward progression of the plot.  Mind you, I can write a haiku poem like it’s nobody’s business – I can be efficient with words!  One of my personal rules for novels is that every scene has to do at least two jobs, or it gets cut.

My hope is that the motivation of having 3 awesome themes to work with, combined with the process of actually writing 3 short stories within a few months, will kick my brain into understanding how it’s done.  In the meantime, those of you who find it easy to churn out short stories should count yourselves lucky – and feel free to offer advice on plotting (and keeping a plot on task)!  Ha!

6 thoughts on “The Cussedness of Short Stories

  1. Try thinking in terms of an idea. One idea per story. Everything else gets cut or condensed or implied. Imagine it’s going to be a novel, and outline the main story arc. A man with severe mental disabilities volunteers for a project that will increase his IQ dramatically, only to find the gain is not sustainable, and he slides from genius back to far-below-average IQ. That’s the main plot arc of the short story “Flowers For Algernon.” Daniel Keyes expanded it into a novel with elaboration and subplot, and he could have condensed it into a flash fiction. One idea, main arc, only elaborate the climax and as much of the rest as absolutely necessary for the climax to make sense. My 2-cents’ worth.

  2. love this, sara— may even have an opportunity to use it, utilize it utilitarianize it– how ’bout Ulysses, better yet, the odyssey in short form, format ,fortuitous, folorn–oh, forget it

    • Hi, Lee! Good to hear from you. I think you may have written a poem in that comment. 😉 I think the Odyssey has enough action packed into it to make a few good short stories!

  3. I can’t imagine this will help – and I’m running on two pots o’ coffee, so please don’t judge me if it’s a little rambley – but a short story is much more than a condensed, simplified novel. It took my taking an intro to literary criticism class in college for me to realize that, but it’s true. Edgar Poe once wrote an essay on the short story and its composition. He posits the theory that every single word should add toward a single effect, should build toward precisely what it is you are attempting to say, and that everything else is wasted. If you are telling the story of a single event, or a string, every detail and sentence should hint at the point you are trying to make in telling the story. I’ve often been told that if I have nothing to say (emphasis on say), not to speak. With a short story, you must have a point, and never let your reader lose sight of it.
    That has been my finding, anyway.

    If you don’t mind, here is a short list of great studies in the short story form that helped me gain an understanding of the form. Again, I hope this helps a little.

    Young Goodman Brown
    The Story of an Hour
    The Lottery (Shirley Jackson)
    A&P (John Updike)

    I would also recommend reading The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock. It’s a poem, but is also rather good as a study of the short story form, just in verse.

    • Thanks for posting! Very thoughtful comment. I will definitely check out the stories you suggest (I have been meaning to read “The Lottery” for a long time now, anyway!). I don’t know that short stories will ever be easy for me – although I suppose, since I can write haiku, it’s only an extension of the same premise, according to your advice! 🙂 I do have a lot of ideas I’d love to work up into short stories, though, and will keep trying to get the hang of it. Novels are much easier for me!

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