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 (NYCM) challenge and attempt to write something shorter. Much shorter. About ninety-nine thousand words shorter!
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the art of writing short stories. And, with the rapid approach of the next NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, I thought I’d share some of those lessons with you.
5 Tips For Writing Short Stories
1. Choose One Main Event
Don’t confuse your readers! Keep things simple and choose one main event to base your story on (ex: a killer virus, a confrontation between two friends, a blind date gone wrong). If you do that, you’ll have an easier time identifying your story’s motives, characters, and ultimate goal (aka, “the big why”).
You’ll also make it much easier for your readers to follow along. They won’t get confused 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, keep it simple.
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!”
“Quiet! I can’t think straight with all this ruckus.” Charles picked up a knife and glared at everyone. “I think we should 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 aren’t enough words to gradually introduce a dozen characters and ensure the audience understands who they are, what their roles are, 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.
3. Avoid Time/Scene Hopping
This tends to be a hot debate amongst 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 look at an example. Below are two synopses based on 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. Then the next, then the next…Although it can work if done right, this skim-jump rhythm doesn’t tend to satisfy readers. It’s too broad and jarring.
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 POV
When you write a story under 2,500 words, one of the best ways to cut down on confusion and 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.
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? Or, perhaps, a groom trying to off his bride? 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 someone else did, too.
Well, 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!
How about you? What are some of your tips for writing stories under 2,500 words? We all have our own methods of madness, so share, share, share!
Don’t forget, the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2016 kicks off this weekend. You still have time sign up, so go check it out!