There is a certain appeal to the idea of writing a short story.
Unlike a novel, writing a short story promises a relatively quick writing process. In many cases, a writer can write the entire story in a day. Editing is less daunting, because the story is short and there aren't as many pieces of the plot to worry about in terms of consistency.
So why do many writers avoid them?
Writing a short story is not easy, it is a completely different exercise than writing a novel. If you're trying to stick to the confines of keeping your story under 5,000 words, you can't waste words, add superfluous details, or develop sub-plots and minor characters. You can put some of those elements in a short story, but they have to be carefully chosen and they have to advance the main story.
A Single Theme or Event
If you are anything like I am, an idea is rarely limited to one specific central theme or element. It rarely involves in a very small set of characters, and there are multiple scenes that you envision to take your main character through their journey. Short stories do not lend themselves well to this, and many writers struggle trying to whittle down an idea into one highly-focused piece of writing. There can be a feeling that you're "wasting" a great idea on a short story, the idea is too good to try to cram into 4,000 words, it needs room to breathe.
The best short stories I've read always seem to focus on a single event, or a single theme. Usually they involve three or four central characters at most. It's really hard for a lot of writers to boil down a story idea to such a small scale.
Let's say you come up with an idea for a space opera, where people with laser swords battle each other, and there's some mysterious energy that flows throughout the universe that only certain people can access. That's a pretty grand idea (I think it might have already been done before). It's too much for a short story. In the context of that idea, a short story would focus on a single day's action, or even just a part of that day. For instance, the short story would be the protagonist trying to lift a rock using the mysterious energy. It can contain some details about this strange "force", but the narrative is about whether the main character can lift the rock or not. Then it's over.
At this point, you're probably thinking that there is a lot more narrative to this story, and you'd be right. But it doesn't belong in this single short story about telekinetic landscaping. There is no rule that says short stories cannot be episodic, you can write them into a story arc, where a small collection of stories form a larger narrative. (I would actually suggest that as a practice exercise: taking a larger idea and breaking it into episodes.)
Distilling a big idea into something smaller can be very difficult. Sometimes less can be more. Short stories allow you to pack a punch. There are no weak spots in the story, or room to write paragraphs or chapters of exposition. The result can be a much stronger piece of fiction than it would have been as a novel. It's hard for writers to let go of a huge idea in favor of a smaller one, but it can be worthwhile.
Next time, I'll explore the thorny issue of what details to include or exclude in a short story.
Why Bother With Short Stories?
I am not going to lie, I have asked myself that questions a few times since I started writing.
The arguments against a writer focusing much of their writing energy on short stories are plentiful:
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. I could fill a blog with all the different things I've read and heard about trying to break in as an author of short stories. It just isn't done anymore. I'll stop, though, before I talk myself out of it.
The reality for me is that both my writing and reading time are at a premium. I have two young children and a busy life (not to mention a full-time job that pays the bills). There are limited opportunities to write, and I have struggled with piecing together longer-form writing when I have to stop frequently. I lose my momentum and the project sits untouched.
But I realized that I am not alone in the issues I face. In today's world, it seems more likely that fewer and fewer people have the time (or can make the time) to sit and read novel after novel. It takes a commitment to get to that point in the hustle and bustle of life in this century.
I can't tell you how many times, in reading a book in the past few years, that I've reached a point where I either want to stop or should stop, and flip ahead to see where the next chapter starts, then groan in disapproval at trying to make it through another five or six pages. I end up not enjoying the story because I forget important elements of the story due to all of the stopping and starting, and find myself disoriented when I pick up the book and start reading again.
So why do I bother with short stories?
Because I want to fill a niche, helping people like me who used to love to read but find they have almost no time for anymore. I want to provide quick, bite-sized entertainment that you can read from start to stop in 10 to 15 minutes.
I remember when I was young, we would read short stories in Read Magazine at school. They were quick reads that packed a wallop, usually pretty famous stories such as "Murder in the Rue Morgue" or "The Lottery". I remember more about those stories, nearly 30 years removed from them, than I do about the most recent novel I've read. Now those kind of stories are all but impossible to find.
The writing community I've encountered on Twitter are a very kind and helpful group, but most are focused on Young Adult, particularly in the fantasy genre. Almost all of them are focused on novels, because big publishers are more apt to spend $1 million on a 100,000 writers of YA Fantasy looking for the next Harry Potter than they are in spending $100 on a really good, self-contained short story. It can't be made into a franchise, so it is overlooked.
I feel that readers are the victims here, especially if you're not into the genres being pushed by major publishers. I love historical fiction, non-fiction and sci-fi (the last of which does get a little more love than the first two). Finding any good short story is a bit of a chore, finding good ones in the genres I enjoy are nearly impossible. I usually go and reread my favorites from Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allen Poe, O. Henry and others, because finding short stories is a time investment in and of itself.
So have a look around my site. I'm offering some short stories for free. I'm offering others for sale on Amazon (for now). There's this blog, and I have a fun blog called "Randos" that offers really quick (and often humorous) reads that might only take a couple of minutes. Hopefully I fill the niche, even a little.
I learn something new everyday.