Louise’s Short Story Lessons

After finishing my most recent edit of Magic and Mayhem, I decided it was time to stretch my writing comfort zone a little, and try my hand at some short stories. You know, because I’m such a terse writer, so good at brevity and clarity, using a minimum of words to convey a maximum of ideas.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

It’s been a learning experience, to say the least. One short story has turned into a novelette. One just managed to squeak in under 7,000 words, but I did have a stroke of brilliance the other day about some editing I can do in order to pare it down by a thousand words or so. One has had two or three incarnations, and is currently mocking me in its still-unfinished state. One seems promising right now, but I have to keep going back and deleting half of it, because my characters go and get all wordy and rambly and off-track.

However! Along with this frustration (I was estimating how long most of Agatha Christie’s short stories were the other evening, and tossed aside the book with a wail of despair. HOW did she pack so much into so few words?), I’m actually learning some useful tips for writing short stories, and thought I’d share them here. So,

  1. Outline. Letting your characters and plot meander about while you figure out what’s happening one step ahead of them may work well enough in a novel, but short stories need outlines. detailed outlines. Outlines that are practically a story in and of themselves.
  2. Eliminate irrelevancies. This one is both hard and painful for me. I adore irrelevancies! Just look at how many parenthesis I use in any given blog post! Irrelevancies are my life’s blood! Only not in a short story.
  3. Pare down the cast. Casts of thousands might work well in fantasy epics; not so much in short stories.
  4. Have a point, and stick to it. See #2.
  5. Be ruthless. I know this is a general rule for writing novels, as well, but even more so with short stories. I don’t care how brilliantly written the heroine’s walk through the woods is, it is taking up 1,000 words to advance her somewhere that could be achieved with 10. Cut it. If you love it that much, save it to use in a novel someday.
  6. Keep scrap paper nearby for jotting down issues and problems as they arise, or interesting potential plot bunnies, or anything that is going to interfere with the tight flow of the story. You might need them later, or find you can use them in something else (see #5), but visually, you don’t want them with the story itself.
  7. Study how the greats do short stories. Chances are, you might see a pattern. Besides, it will give you something worthwhile to read while your own stories are dancing circles around you.
  8. Keep the words and sentences themselves brief. It will help your brevity overall. Hard to stick with 7,000 words when you use 500 of those words in the very first sentence.
  9. When you get too frustrated, take a break. Write poetry. Draw something. Sew. Cook. Clean. Write long, rambling blog posts to get the need for MANY WORDS out of your system. If you get too, too frustrated, go back to novels. It’s ok if short stories never become your thing.
  10. I don’t really have a tenth point. I just didn’t want to end this with nine.
Obviously, some of these points only apply to me (#6, especially, is just personal preference), but I hope anyone can glean some wisdom from them. What about you? Do you have any tips for writing good short stories?
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16 thoughts on “Louise’s Short Story Lessons

  1. Major, major RESPECT to you, Louise. I can NOT write a short story for the life of me… somehow they always turn into novels, or ideas for trilogies. I am so darn wordy! I read somewhere that a short story should be thought of as half a scene. That way you'll think really hard about everything you want to convey in such a small space and stay within the word limit.

  2. I used to have the problem of not knowing how to keep a story short. I took a correspondence writing course where nearly all of the assignments were short stories (some were novel excerpts, but that's almost as difficult.). Somewhere along the way, the short-story clicked with me, and I completely lost the novel-writer. I think I still COULD write a novel if I had a great story to tell, but as of right now, I no longer remember how to keep a story going for 50,000 words. It's the strangest thing.

  3. I find writing short stories and anything fiction hard to write. I like writing memoirs and reviewing movies. When I think of things to write, I try to write them down write away but sometimes that doesn't happen. I also think of things to write when I'm in bed, when I'm NOT on the computer to write it down!

  4. I've heard that about the scene before – but it's just about impossible for me to wrap my head around. So very little happens in half a scene, so how am I supposed to make that into a complete story?Maybe I just need to revise my ideas of scenes …

  5. So weird, Val! I must confess that my ideal story length is around 30,000 words, which is too long for most things but too short to be considered a novel. Alas for me!

  6. The only time I feel like I'm getting sufficient description in my stories is when I'm writing LMM fanfiction. And then I wander too far in the other direction and get lost in purple prose!

  7. I was having a lot of problems writing a short. I have a short that's due and I couldn't get a story to work–lots of false starts becoming too, too long. Then a writing friend reminded to think of a short as a single scene. Aha. That helped me so much. Three days later I had a working draft. Phew!

  8. I agree Louise, to each her own. I'm brave at trying new things to write a little bit. I have to be in the mood to try something new to write. I'm still figuring out how to write music and book reviews however lately, haven't touched it. I've been too busy keeping up my blog, writing reviews and watching movies. Clarity is difficult for me too because I write too much and go on and on about the same topic. I could write a whole book about movies without explaining the WHY and HOW I love film so much. I'm practicing clarity in my reviews, especially for plot. Can I mention you, Louise in my blog? I may write something similar to this — for reviewing.

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