On Crafting the Short Story
I edit all types of fiction except poetry. While I've certainly edited my share of novels, my specialty is the short story.
Outside of my job, I don't like to give advice for several reasons, the main one being that any time I do give advice, I have to ask myself why I do it. Who proclaimed me an authority on anything at all? No one, that's who.
With that in mind, people frequently ask me for advice on writing short stories, on what an editor looks for in a good short story, so this blog entry is my attempt to answer their questions.
In many ways, the short story is even harder to write than the novel. In the novel, the writer has room to "spread out," create more characters, develop his theme. The short story requires pinpoint focus, something that's very difficult for many new writers to achieve. Once you decide on the theme for your story, everything in that story must relate to that theme. Anything that doesn't, dilutes its impact greatly.
In a novel, you have room to digress and develop subplots. The very best short stories, however, follow a very, very narrow subject line. If they don't, more often than not, you'll end up, not with a short story, but with a mess.
Before you even begin to think about writing, you need to read. Read the short stories of master writers like Chekhov, Hemingway, Faulkner, Flannery O'Conner, du Maupassant, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, and others. When you read great authors, you learn how they crafted a great story and solved problems, and as a bonus, you might find inspiration for a story of your own.
Also, before you begin to write, you need to conceptualize your story. You need to ask yourself questions. Let's say you want to write a story about an elderly woman who finds new meaning in her everyday life. Why, specifically, does her life lack meaning? What, specifically, restores meaning to her life? How does it do so? Unless you know exactly what you want to write about, you can't craft a good short story.
I'm a huge advocate of outlines. I don't think much earns the title "masterpiece" unless the author's mapped it out first. Just like novels need outlines, so do short stories. Short stories have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, and it's vitally important that you order every scene correctly.
We won't learn as much about your characters in a short story as we do in a novel, but still, they need to be more than cardboard cutouts. The reader has to be able to relate to them as real people, not simply as an invention to move the plot along. And the depth and poignancy of your characters will dictate the depth and poignancy of your short story. Your ending will grow out of who and what you characters are. A short story should probably contain no more than three main characters. Any more and its power and focus will be lost.
After you've decided on your choice of characters, you have to decide on your point-of-view. While novels are often written from a multiple point-of-view, a short story usually has only one viewpoint character. When you're deciding who this viewpoint character should be, remember, a short story told from a different point-of-view is a different story, not necessarily better or worse, but different. However you decide to tell your story, make sure you maintain consistency throughout.
Most short stories contain some dialogue. Some, like Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" are almost all dialogue. Others, like Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" contain very little. Still other's, like Flannery O'Conner's "The Geranium" are a mix of about equal parts. Your theme will, in large part, determine how much or how little dialogue you use, but you should make it a point to use some dialogue in almost any short story. Dialogue helps us "show, not tell" and good dialogue helps bring characters and stories to life. But remember, dialogue is the most powerful tool in the writer's toolbox. Don't overuse it unless you do so for a purpose. To overuse dialogue would be like putting too much spice in a dish.
The time span in a short story is usually very brief, a day at most, however, some superlative short stories, such as "A Rose for Emily" cover many years. A long span of time in a short story is tricky and difficult to handle, though, and I usually only recommend writers with some experience giving it a try. Whether your time span is long or short, make sure every event relates to your theme.
We editors usually give novelists five pages in which to capture our attention. Short story writers usually only get no more than five sentences, and it's best to do it in one. Try to give us some information about your main character in the first few sentences and try to raise some questions in your reader's mind as well.
I'm currently in the middle of writing a short story that begins with this sentence: "My mother burned our house down the evening of the day she found her husband hanging from the tulip tree on the front lawn." You might find this sentence intriguing or you might not like it at all, however, it does impart a lot of information and it also immediately raises several questions in the mind of the reader, hopefully causing him or her to read on.
When crafting the middle of your short story, remember that conflict is the essence of fiction. And while foreshadowing, symbolism, and imagery are all important, be careful. Don't telegraph the ending of your story to your readers.
People used to think a "surprise" ending like those found in the stories of O. Henry was desirable. Today, however, this type of ending isn't such a good idea. Still, your ending should be fresh and original, and while it needs to be perfectly consistent with the story, it shouldn't be predictable. And even though it shouldn't be shocking, it should resonate in the mind and heart of the reader and leave a lasting impression.
After you've finished writing your story, unless you're a very unusual writer, you still need to edit, rewrite, and polish. And remember, rewriting and polishing aren't the same thing. When you rewrite, you scratch out words and phrases, and sometimes entire paragraphs - anything that's superfluous, no matter how "pretty" or well written. When you polish, you concentrate on choosing the exact word or phrase, on saying something in the best way it can possibly be said in order to have the most impact on the reader. You concentrate on making your story a seamless whole.
Writing a short story isn't easy. Writing a superlative short story is even more difficult. You should expect to put a great deal of time and effort into crafting one. You should expect your final polished story to be a great deal different from your first rough draft. If you have a talent for "capturing the moment," and if you take the time to really learn your craft, your work will certainly be worth the effort.