What Makes a Short Story?

Hello, readers and writers. Tis I, Marie, your friendly neighborhood beta reader/content editor. I wear many hats, but today I am stepping into my role as beta reader to give my fellow novice writers a few tips on writing short stories.

As a reader of many genres for many decades, I can safely say that I know what to look for in the first few paragraphs of a story to know if it resonates with me or not. My problem lately is that I have been reading a lot of short stories, both published and unpublished, that immediately scream “You will not enjoy this!” on page one. Which is sad, because I always love a good, quick read on days when I am too busy for a novel-length vacation from reality.

No, this is not a complaining post, though it could have easily become one. Instead, I want to point out issues I see often and encourage writers to dig deep with their story ideas. Remember, I want you guys to succeed. I want each and every one of you to continue to become better at your craft. That being said, I don’t pull punches. Marie doesn’t wear kid gloves.

Marie will now stop referring to herself in third person because it is kind of creepy.

Here’s the thing about short stories: they are not “less than” stories. There are fewer words, sure. Probably fewer pages, unless you are doing some weird formatting. But other than that, these stories should not be less than what a reader would expect from a full-length novel as far as content. Here is what I mean.

Let’s say you are writing a story aiming for a certain word count. The first thing you need to consider with word counts that are low is if you can tell this exact story you have in mind within that word count. The type of story is a major factor here. If your story is a quick-paced, no holds barred, action tale that focuses on events, you could probably do a great short story with a limited word count. An emotional tale with little real action? It is possible. But what I can tell you as a reader is that I am looking for a full story. Full does not mean long. It means I want all the usual stuff I look for in every story.

I want to connect with the characters. Let me say that again for the people in the back: I want characters that I can relate to or that can draw some kind of emotional reaction from me. Whether I love to hate them or want to laugh and cry with them, make them three dimensional. Make them real to the reader. They need flaws, personalities, funny quirks, whatever.

I want an established setting. I want to know what kind of world or time period the story is taking place in. If I’m halfway through and still have no idea if this is a modern-day story or some kind of fantasy world, Houston, we have a problem.

Now I know what you are thinking; how can you create a real, complex world or an entire backstory for every character for a story less than, say, twelve thousand words? Will you have to do info dumping and more telling than showing? Not necessarily. Any writer worth their salt knows that there are ways to showcase a setting or establish a character’s role in the story without having to spell it all out like the world’s longest grocery list.

You can bore your reader by saying something like this:

The year is 2040. Robots are everywhere. Some work as tellers at banks, gas attendants, bus boys, or shelf stockers. Most people didn’t trust them at first, but many have grown used to seeing them in every city in America. The problem is, newer models have been glitching more often lately.

Or instead, you can say something like this:

Mary strolled down the sidewalk with her bag of greasy burgers. Swiping her brown locks from her face in irritation, she mumbled to herself. “Gets my order wrong every time now! I swear, if Charlie’s Place wasn’t so damn yummy, I would waste my money somewhere else!” An angry shout to her left drew her gaze and she paused to watch a man at the gas station across the street slam his car door closed and lumber up to the gas bot pumping his fuel. Mary couldn’t hear his exact words, but she got the drift: the robot had messed up. Probably used the wrong fuel or pumped too much gas. Well, at least it isn’t just me having problems with the metal help, she thought dismally. What was it about these newer models? The ones from the early 30s didn’t have the issues the newer ones did. “It’s 2040,” she whined. “You would think technology would make things better, not worse.” I mean, would they have to go back to flipping their own burgers?

Longer, you bet. But we get to know a bit about our main character, establish the year, and see that robots are not working as they should. A bit of foreshadowing? (Hmm, maybe now I need to write this story.) My point is, shorter does not mean you cut out all the good stuff. You can still create a complex world with fully developed characters in a shorter story.

If you are trying to take a written story and cut it down, be careful. Instead of chopping all the things that matter, look for scenes that are not relevant to the main plot. Look for side characters that have no purpose. We don’t need a comic relief or gay best friend just to say we have one. If it isn’t necessary, file thirteen it.

I never thought I would write short stories as an adult. I always balked at the idea and figured novels would be my thing. Which is funny, because I have written far more short stories at this point than full-length novels. Once I realized that I could still tell a complete story, just with fewer words, I decided to give it a try. And guess what? I’ve never looked back.

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