What I've Learned About Short Stories
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
Below are some of the things I've learned about writing short stories rather than longer narrative forms. These tips were gathered from my mentors as an undergrad and a graduate student as well as some things that I learned on my own.
DISCLAIMER: These are not rules. Fiction has no rules but these are little pieces of advice that have helped me when writing short stories.
Short stories should focus on one singular idea/question/problem ONLY. For example, Jill is trying to deliver a package in time to get to her mother for her birthday. That's the focus of the story but you can still have Jill battle space demons and fight the ghost of her dead lover to get there. You will just need to be able to relate all events to that singular focus of the story.
They say in a novel you have the first chapter to convince the reader to read on. In a short story, you have the first paragraph. Your first paragraph needs to do the heavy lifting and MUST include your implicit promise. An implicit promise, for those of you who don't know, is the promise that you make to your reader from the get go. It's like the thesis statement of your creative work though it is implied rather than stated. More on implicit promises in a later post.
You will always find the answer to how to end your story in the first paragraph or scene. I can't say this works for everyone but it has worked 100% of the time for me. If you're struggling with a story's ending go back to the beginning. Revisit your implicit promise.
Shy away from backstory and flashback. If you rely too heavily on backstory and flashback maybe you aren't telling the story you actually want to tell. Ask yourself what the reader really needs to know about the character's past for the story you are trying to tell.
Leave unanswered questions that don't relate to your main focus. This helps the world feel like something that existed before the reader entered and still exists after they leave. This may upset some readers but who cares. It is important to answer questions you promised to answered though but it's okay to leave some secrets.
Every single sentence counts. Make sure that every single sentence has a purpose for being there. You don't have a lot of space so people are looking more closely at individual sentences than they would in a novel. I call it "interrogating" the sentence. At the end of your editing process, review each sentence. What does this sentence do for the story and does it relate to the sentence before and after it?
Lastly, end the story a paragraph sooner. Short stories don't need that same closure a novel needs. Again this is something that has always worked for me. So, if you find yourself struggling with the ending, trying chopping the last paragraph or line and see if that is your ending.