For us long-winded, self-indulgent writer types, the art of producing short stories can be just as tricky as churning out a 100k novel draft. And short story writing is an art. I’ve spent a big chunk of time this summer trying to hone this skill, and these are the unofficial guidelines I’ve come up with – mostly for myself, but they might be useful to others, too. Under the cut, I’ll elaborate on each point and recommend stories I’ve read that are especially good examples of the craft.
(My recommendations will be sci-fi and fantasy, since that’s what I read. Some are Nebula Award winners and some just have a lot of notes on Tumblr. They’ll also be stories that are not commonly taught in English class, because, sorry, but “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” turned me off of short stories for years, until I started finding the enjoyable stuff.)
The Five Short Story Commandments:
- No matter how short, a story needs a beginning, middle, and end
- Lead up to a revelation or realization
- Focus on the details, not the big picture
- Start in the middle of the action…
- …But don’t show all your cards right away
A Beginning, A Middle, An End
All three are present in effective stories, no matter the length. The beginning can be abrupt, the middle can mislead, and the end can be a single pithy concluding sentence – whatever form they take, they just have to be there.
Example: Toad Words by Ursula Vernon is one of my favorite short fantasy stories. Reading it was the first time I realized how much of an impact you can make with a very small number of words. It’s the length of a flash fiction piece but has a coherent beginning, middle, and end. (I also highly recommend this author’s other short stories, especially Jackalope Wives and The Tomato Thief.)
Pull Back the Curtain
A common way of structuring a short story is to introduce a conflict, build the tension, and then end with a “climax” that entails a revelation or realization. The protagonist (or the reader) makes a discovery that changes everything, or reveals a new layer to what we thought was a simple situation.
Example: This untitled piece subverts a common fairytale trope, and builds to a revelation at the end that puts the rest of the story into a completely different context.
Magnify the Details
Novels are the place to explore large, multifaceted conflict(s). Short stories are a medium for highlighting small aspects of a big picture. Don’t try to write a 5k story about the cruelty of war on a global scale; touch on that theme by examining a soldier’s struggle during a single moment in a long conflict, or a civilian family caught in crossfire. Don’t try to condense a discussion about the humanity of artificial intelligence into 10 pages; write one conversation between a troublesome AI and the harried scientist who created it.
If you have a big concept, instead of trying to explore its widespread effects and all its implications, choose one specific perspective and flesh it out.
Example: Try Non-Zero Probabilities by N.K. Jemisin and Eros, Philia, Agape by Rachel Swirsky. Each one takes a big idea (superstitions becoming real; robot ethics) but frames it in the context of small individuals and their small worlds.
Start in the Middle
This is advice commonly given to would-be novelists: throw your character right into the action. That’s even more important in a short story. Kurt Vonnegut suggests starting “as close to the end as possible.” That also means: don’t bother with background info or exposition. If you really need it there, provide it in small doses spread throughout the action.
This rule applies not only to plot, but also to character and world building. You can’t and shouldn’t try to tell the reader every little thing about your protagonist or the world they inhabit; instead, provide only the most necessary information and allude to the rest. The reader’s imagination will fill in any blanks.
Example: Immersion by Aliette De Bodard is a great example of this rule (and all the previous ones). The story begins right before a character has the climactic revelation. The action takes place in a very short span of time (one morning) and centers on two (mostly) ordinary people. And yet, it manages to present two distinct and coherent points of view, flesh out a unique sci-fi concept, and comment on social, racial, and cultural issues.
Don’t Show Your Hand Too Early
This point links back to rule #2: in order for there to be a paradigm-changing revelation at the end, you need to hold something back about the conflict. There are three ways of doing this. The first involves keeping both the protagonist and the reader in the dark. The second involves withholding information from the reader that the protagonist does know, but isn’t explicitly thinking or talking about. The last involves letting the reader know what’s going on before the protagonist figures it out. This trick adds tension to the story and stops you from spelling out the conflict, making it too obvious and potentially boring the reader.
Example: Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders introduces two characters who can see the future, but their powers manifest in different ways. The mystery? Even though both characters know what will happen in the future, and behave accordingly, the reader doesn’t know. The characters also have different opinions about fate and choice, and we don’t know which of them is right.
Short stories can be a lot of fun. They give you a chance to explore and experiment, and despite my “commandments” joke, there are really no rules. As you get into the habit of reading short stories, though, you’ll see patterns emerge, characteristics that all the good ones seem to have in common. Not every story follows all of these “rules,” but probably adheres to at least one or two of them.
The most important thing about learning to write short stories is to read a lot of them. If you take nothing else from this post, check out those links I provided and take note of how those stories are put together.