If you dig into a writing group, you’ll likely discover two camps: short story writers and novelists. Short story writers specialize in a greater number of short pieces of fiction (let’s say up to 10,000 words), while novelists spend their time writing fewer long works (an “average” adult novel is 80,000 – 100,000 words). Writers in both of these camps basically want the same thing: to improve their craft and to be published and read.
Many writers move between camps, if you will. Some view short story writing as practice for eventual novel writing. Novelists may view short stories as a way to hone their skills without spending months to years on a single story.
I’m part of that last group.
I wrote three short-ish novels before I decided to write a short story. I didn’t really know how to write a short story – I may or may not have Googled “how to write a short story.” Since then, I’ve written 30 short stories, and all but one are published on this blog. Even my admittedly clunky first effort is here. I’ll explain what happened to the one that isn’t here at the end of this post.
While short stories aren’t my primary focus of literary creation, the skills I’ve developed while writing them have improved my practice as a novelist in several ways.
Side note: when I say “short story” I likely mean “flash fiction.” Flash fiction pieces are short short stories – not more than 1,000 words. Most of my short stories are flash fiction pieces.
1. Short stories force you to be concise.
The majority of my short stories are responses to flash fiction challenges. Those typically have word count limits of 1,000 – 2,000 words. One had a limit of 100 words. In working with any of those limits, there just isn’t space to write out elegant scene descriptions or detailed character backstory. Writing concisely is well worth practicing, because that stuff usually gets edited out of a novel anyway. You have to figure out how to weave it into the narrative to keep the story moving and waste no words.
2. Short stories challenge you to wear different hats.
By that I mean you write characters you ordinarily wouldn’t, especially not for the length of a novel. In my stories I’ve been a 20-something single woman, a 30-something married woman, a 50-something cross dressing priest, a teenage girl, a teenage boy with telekinetic powers, an ex-con, a mountain climber, a divorcee, an astronaut, an old woman, a mom, a dad, a ghost, a sister on a revenge mission, a hunter in a fantasy world, a football player, a parent convicted of child neglect, and a teenage boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, among a few others. The list of characters I’ve been in my novels is much, much shorter.
3. Short stories challenge you to write in different genres.
In novels, I primarily write mystery and suspense for YA and adult audiences. In short stories, I’ve written literary fiction, romance, horror, erotica, spec-fic, mystery, paranormal, historical, and romcom. In writing short stories, you may stumble into a new genre that you enjoy writing. It happened to me (see what that was about at the end of the post).
4. Short stories are a risk-free way to try new devices.
In my novels, I write in third person limited POV, past tense. In short stories, I almost always write in first person POV, present tense. I know an author who wrote a short story that was almost 100% dialogue. You can try different hooks and voices. Maybe you want to write from the perspective of a formless, ethereal presence. The point is if you want to try a new device, short stories let you do that without committing to it for the length of a novel. If it doesn’t work, it’s only cost you a thousand words and a couple of hours.
5. Short stories allow you to practice character arcs in a short space.
All good stories have definitive character arcs – that’s how the character changes from the beginning to the end. They may go from fearful to courageous, lonely to in love, pissed off to generous, and so on. Often, this change comes from learning something or from overcoming a challenge. The most common arcs are those where the character becomes a better person, but it can go the other way.
6. Short stories hone plotting skills.
Stories must have a beginning, middle, and end, even in the shortest pieces of flash fiction. In many narrative constructions, something happens around the midpoint that forces the character to head for the climax, or the point where they’re no longer striving for the thing they’ve been working towards for the story’s duration. They either get the thing or they don’t.
7. A short story could launch your next novel.
Remember how I said all but one of my short stories are on this blog? Sometimes you’ll land on a compelling idea that deserves more space than a short story allows. That’s what happened to the missing story – a tale about a teenage boy who survived a pandemic and developed shapeshifting abilities. I decided to expand on it, and it became Drake and the Fliers. I never thought I’d write an urban fantasy novel, and if I hadn’t written the short story first, Drake’s novel wouldn’t exist.
How have short stories fit into your writing practice?