Are there differences in approach between novels and short stories? Maybe not for everyone, but it is for me. In this post, I’ll show you the three steps I take to bring a short story to life pretty quickly.
There is also a video for this post in which I explain the three steps to you:
What is a short story anyway?
The name is a bit misleading, as "short" is always a matter of proportion. Is a 50 page story a short story? By all means. Is a 5 page story a short story? Yes.
There are a few rules of thumb for what a short story should be like to be categorized as a short story. When planning, however, I would be less hung up on whether I now have to apply 13.00 or 20.000 words, but make sure it’s a good story – whether it’s a short story, a novella, or a novel, to name just three forms.
But let’s compare the novel and the short story to get a general overview:
|Scope||ca. 70.000 words||up to ca. 15.000 words|
|Content||Mostly events of several days, months or years||Mostly snapshots|
|End||Often self-contained||Often open-ended (since it’s a snapshot in time)|
|Start||Partly long introduction||Mostly direct entry into the action|
|Time||Time jumps are often present||Time jumps are rare|
|Characters||Very detailed elaboration, reader gets to know her very well||Elaborated, but tend to stay on the surface because of brevity|
|Countless characters possible||Mostly only a very small ensemble of characters|
|Background||The reader learns a lot about the background||The reader has to figure out the backgrounds|
I admit, I’m not a short story reader. I’ve only been getting into this genre for a few weeks and realize I’ve missed out on a lot of great stories.
So you don’t end up like me, here are a few reasons why you should consider writing short stories as a writer:
1. It helps you crystallize the essence of a story
Anyone can write long! It is not an art to write a crime novel that is 500 pages long, if you have enough ideas how to keep the reader as long as possible. Just because someone has the stamina to write 500 pages doesn’t mean they write a better story than someone who spends just as long on 20 pages.
Even more: If you make sure that your short story is really exciting and manage to realize an interesting idea, ideally with a surprising twist at the end, your short story might be more exciting than the 500-page novel.
Keeping it short is an art. It’s like filleting: Piece by piece, you cut off the excess fat until only the good stuff remains. To practice this, short stories are ideal because you HAVE to be brief.
2. You practice the art of abstraction (and so does the reader)
There are well-known short stories that don’t actually seem exciting at first glance, for example, because an everyday situation is described. What is important here is what has just NOT been written down. This "reading between the lines" is not difficult for writers, but also for readers. Especially in short stories a lot of things are assumed, which are not written down. By leaving out superfluous information and letting the reader figure it out for himself, he is encouraged to think along with you. And it helps you to practice "subtext".
3. Short stories can be written faster
Often you have only one or two conflicts in a short story, whereas a novel has many different levels of conflict (exceptions prove the rule). Therefore, you may find it easier and faster to write short stories. I for my part sometimes manage to write a complete story a day (then just really short stories that are 1/2 or 1 page long).
At the same time it increases your motivation, because you are "through" faster.
A drabble is a story that consists of EXACTLY 100 words (not 99, not 101). The title is not counted here.
I haven’t tried writing a drabble myself yet, but it really excites me so I definitely want to give it a try in June. Marcus Johanus wrote this article on the subject a few years ago and here are some examples of what a drabble can look like.
It’s a great way to just practice plotting. And ideal for social media postings!
But now we come to the topic:
I work through the following three steps when I want to write a short story (I would try these steps with a drabble). I take a similar approach to novel writing, but the individual steps are much more deeply fleshed out.
Step 1: Formulate the message/theme
My story is also meant to be a nice pastime, but of course it is even nicer if there is a "moral of the story" as well. That’s why (unlike with a novel) I first think about the topic or the message I want to convey.
If I have absolutely no idea what to write about, I scour the internet for aphorisms and take inspiration from them. Also WritingPrompts (currently daily on my Twitter account and my Facebook page to find) help your inspiration on the jumps.
Example: "In the end, the important thing is that you like yourself, no matter what anyone else says"
Step 2: Set the genre/tone
I’m not bound to a certain genre with my stories and I also like to try out different "tones" (dramatic, funny, gloomy, imaginative, …). Therefore, before I start thinking about the actual story, I determine what genre it will be in: Will it be a funny or sad story? Exciting or emotional?
Example: The story should be emotional and remind of the genre "romance novel"/"development novel"
Step 3: Plot the story and its characters
Can you plot figures? I have now summarized the two elements under this keyword. In the final step, I consider what story could happen that has the message of my story. It doesn’t matter if a story or a character comes to mind first. Based on this idea for a character or story, I then consider the rough process:
Example: A woman is fixated on doing everything to please the man of her choice. The more she tries to please him, the uglier she gets: first she just gets pimples and dull hair, but soon she looks like Quasimodo’s sister. The guy leaves her, she’s totally unhappy, but then she realizes there are still things she loves about herself. The more conscious it becomes of this, the more beautiful it becomes again, until it finally shines from within and has that "certain something extra" that cannot be described. It wasn’t until she decided to love herself (no matter what others think) that she opened the door to inner and outer beauty.