Up until the fall of 2013, I’d only ever worked on novel length projects. Then I decided to sign up for an NYC Midnight challenge and attempt to write something shorter. Much shorter. About ninety-nine thousand words shorter!
I went into the competition feeling confident. I mean, how hard could writing a 1,000-word short story be compared to writing a novel?
Well, it turns out hard. Really hard. Who knew cramming and jamming all the vital elements of a story into such a small space would be such a tough job?
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the art of writing short stories. And with the rapid approach of the next NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you. Hopefully they’ll help you avoid making the same mistakes I made.
Jen’s Top Five Tips For Writing Short Stories
1: Choose One Main Event
Don’t muddle your plot or confuse your readers. Keep things simple and choose one main event to base your story on. Maybe it’s a killer virus, or a confrontation between two friends, or even a blind date gone wrong. Whatever it is, choose something specific and focus your entire story on it. If you do that, you’ll have an easier time identifying your story’s motives, characters, and ultimate goal (aka, “the big why”).
Plus, by narrowing your focus, your readers will have an easier time following your plot line. They won’t get confused, scattered, or detached as you jump from a grisly murder in an alleyway, to a deadly car chase, to an arrest at a gas station, to an epic prison break, to a fugitive on the run, to a hostage crisis at a bank, to a bomb explosion that kills everyone…See? It’s too much for 2,500 words (or less).
So, focus on one main event and you’ll stand a better chance of writing a clearer, sharper story that ensnares readers from start to finish.
2) The Fewer The Characters, The Better The Story
“I don’t know. What do you think, Maddie?” Sam asked.
Maddie shrugged. “No idea. Pete?”
“Why are you asking him?” yelled Sandra. “He doesn’t know anything!”
“Yes, he does.” Rachel rested her hand on Pete’s shoulder and shot Sue an uneasy glance.
Sue nodded. “We should listen to him. Or Alice. She’s done this before.”
“No way.” Timothy shook his head. “Pete and Alice are crazy. You’re all crazy! Right, Quinn?”
Quinn snorted. “I’m not doing anything those two nut jobs say–”
“Quiet! I can’t think straight with all this ruckus.” Charles glared at the group. Nobody dared to challenge him. Nobody except his wife, Betty.
She picked up her knife. “I say we kill half the group so the rest of us don’t starve.”
Did you keep up? No? Well, trust me, if you do this in a short story, your readers probably won’t either. There just aren’t enough words to gradually introduce a dozen characters and ensure the audience understands who they are, what their role is, and why they’re important to the plot.
That’s why I suggest you limit yourself to four named characters. Four. Beyond that, readers lose track of who’s who (“Hold up, I thought Pete was the leader of the group, not Charles? And wasn’t Sue his wife, not Betty?“). Plus, the more characters you use, the less impact your lead(s) have. They end up becoming just another face in the crowd.
So, do as Betty (the wife) suggested and kill off half the group. Don’t starve your main characters by wasting precious words on unnecessary ones.
3) Avoid Time/Scene Hopping
Let me start by saying this is a hot debate amongst many writers. Some believe time/scene hopping works in a short story, while others (like me) believe it should be avoided. Why? Because, in my opinion, the more you move a short story around (especially through time), the more you dilute it. Characters lose depth, motives get fuzzy, and conflicts lose their edge.
Let’s run through a quick example. I’ll use the plot from my flash fiction horror, “Why?”
Without time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her.
With this version, I’m able to dig in and write a detailed story about a little girl experiencing a terrible tragedy. Sights, smells, sounds, emotions, conversations–from start to finish, I’m able to convey this horrific event to the reader. Nothing has to be skimmed over or left out.
With time/scene hops: A little girl goes to the beach with her parents and brother. While there, a commercial airliner crashes and kills everyone except her. Ten years later, she drops out of high school and runs away from her foster parents. Along the way, she meets a young man who convinces her to let go of her tragic past. Five years later, she marries him and they have a little girl. Ten years later, she agrees to visit a beach for the first time since she lost her family. Twenty years later, she smiles at her husband, children, and grandchildren, thankful she was able to rebuild the family she lost so long ago.
Rather than diving into the little girl’s head and experiencing the tragedy through her eyes, we skim over it and jump to the next phase in her life. And then we skim over that phase and jump to the next. And then the next, and then the next. Although it can work, most of the time this skim-jump rhythm isn’t satisfying to readers. They don’t want to be a spectator in a story. They want to be a participant in it. Whether it’s tragedy, comedy, or romance, they want to live in that fictional world, not see it from a bird’s eye view.
So, I say time hop if you must, but only do it once or twice. After that, your story starts to sound more like a summary of a much bigger project.
4) Single POVWhen you write a story under 2,500 words, one of the best ways to cut down on confusion (“Wait, who’s telling the story?”), and to strengthen your plot is to use a single POV. It doesn’t matter if you’re using first or third person; just decide who your protagonist is and then tell the story from their perspective. If they can’t see, feel, hear, or think it, then it doesn’t exist. Period.
If you take this approach, then I can guarantee you’ll have a sharper, clearer, and deeper story. Why? Because not only will you be able to explore your protagonist and their world more thoroughly, but your audience will be able to transport themselves into it easier (which means they’ll be able to relate more, feel more, and believe more.)
Personally, I like to think of POV like a camera. I set it up in my protagonist’s head and then push record. That way while I’m writing, I can continually ask myself, “Is this getting recorded?” If not, then I have to either chop it out or find a way to convey it from my protagonist’s viewpoint.
5) Think Outside the Box
Yes, I know. Duh! But you’d be surprised by how many stories I’ve read that have used obvious premises. For example, during the NYCM Short Story Challenge 2014, my group was assigned these prompts: Suspense, Chef, Wedding. What’s the first idea that comes to mind?
Are you thinking?
Okay, was it a chef poisoning food at a wedding? Maybe a groom trying to off his bride? Or a bride being targeted by her jealous sister? Well, guess what? Over half the people in my group wrote stories like that (and I almost did before deciding to take things in a different direction).
So, before you start writing (especially if you’re in a competition like NYCM), ask yourself, “Will others think of this idea?” If so, you might want to discard it and keep brainstorming. My personal policy? Throw out the first idea. If I thought of it, then surely someone else did.
There you go! Those are my top five tips for writing short stories under 2,500 words. Of course, not everyone will agree with them, and I know many writers who’ve taken opposite approaches and succeeded. But, for me, these tips work, and I hope they work for you too!
So, how about you? What are some of your big tips for writing stories under 2,500 words? We all have our own methods of madness, so share, share, share!
Don’t forget, the early entry deadline for the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge 2015 is today (June 18th), and the final deadline is July 30th. I strongly encourage you to sign up! Even if you’re a novelist like me, short stories make for great practice. So, give it a try.