- Know what constitutes a short story. A short story is about 10,000 words. Much longer and it becomes a different animal. You may be asking, “How many page is that?” The answer is, use your word count. When your story goes to layout, it could be just about any amount of page numbers depending on the interior layout style.
- Limit your scope of time or character. A short story is not a lazy novel. In fact, a short story is often harder to write because it is a small package that must remain within its own confines. You shouldn’t try to tell someone’s life story in a short story unless it is about a fruitfly.
- Try to keep your short story time frame as a snippet. Need some back story? Great! But make sure it doesn’t go on and on and on. Another way to limit your scope is through character selection. If you have too many characters actively involved in the story, you may want to reconsider whether you are writing a short story or a novel written in character sections that intertwine.
- Cut the fat. Again. A short story is not a lazy novel. It requires a deliberateness and sparity of language. Make sure you ruthlessly edit your sentences to distill them down to the most important of words that still grab the essence of the character. This doesn’t mean you need to write simplistic sentences fit for a young reader. It means you need to be selective. Ask yourself, “Does this sentence further the story or give some sense of character or plot?” Because if the answer is no, then cut it. If you find yourself explaining every gesture and action of your character, your writing needs tightening up. Recently I read a story that involved tons of dialogue. In each phrase the speaking character said the name of the character they were talking to. It read something like this (names have been changed):
“Jeffrey, will you take the garbage under the sink in the kitchen up to the Dumpster at the top of the hill?”
“Yes, Kathryn, I will take the garbage under the sink in the kitchen up to the Dumpster at the top of the hill?”
Snore! Not only does it take up a ton of space, it is really boring and makes your characters sound like they have been taken over by an alien robot race that has become self-aware.
- Point of view. Authors often try to switch voices within novels. It doesn’t work well there. It definitely won’t work in a short story. Keep your point of view (or POV for the cool kids) limited to one. Either a narrator or a character. It keeps the story clean, the reader focused, and the story easier to tell.
- Is it a short story? As you write, you may find out that your short story is kind of long. With potential to be even longer. Revisit points 1-4 and if you find that your writing is tight, your time frame is fair, and you’ve written excellent deliberate sentences then what you have on your hands is not a short story. It’s a novel. So you the writer needs to make a decision. Fish or cut bait. If you are committed to the short form, rework the story so that it is an excerpt that can stand alone as a short story. You can always expand on it later. Or, go for it. Write that blasted novel you’ve been thinking about!