How to Make Your Short Story Short

There are two kinds of writers in the world – those who think that you can classify writers in two categories and those…

Wait.  That’s not it.

There are two kinds of writers in the world – those who struggle to extend their ideas into novels and those who struggle to condense their ideas into short stories.  I fall in the latter camp.

Take my novelette, Abuse of Power.  It’s a pretty straight forward love story:

  • Boy is introduced in action sequence that has future plot implications
  • Boy meets girl
  • Villain is introduced
  • Villain abducts girl
  • Boy rescues girl
  • Boy and girl flee villain while falling for each other
  • Boy defeats villain
  • Boy and girl admit their love

I made it as short as I possibly could and still ended up with over 12,000 words.  Even then, I wasn’t completely satisfied.  Yes, it’s a decent story.  It’s got a nice blend of action, humor, and romance, and it represents my writing well.  It also asks the reader to accept that these two characters fall in love in a short period of time.   I simply did not have the space in a novelette to develop the relationship and make them struggle the way that I could in a novel.

And that’s for a novelette.   I can’t spend the time it takes to produce 10k+ words for all my short story ideas.  I’ve got to figure out how to condense the story.

I started with some research.  I’ll summarize what I got out of it below, but the root articles are here and here

One way of writing a short story is to focus on a plot idea instead of a character.  The ending is an exciting twist or gotcha moment instead of a change to the protagonist.  This method is a valid choice, just not what I’m trying to achieve.  My writing tends to be more character based.

So, how do you fit an entire character arc into a short story?

Answer: you don’t.

Before you angrily click away, hear me out.  Here’s the structure for a Hero’s Journey (found here):

  1. Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
  8. Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return

While it’s possible to contain all these elements in three to five thousand words, it’s unlikely that it’s going to be very satisfying.  Instead, you summarize most of the elements and focus the story on only a few of them. 

Instead of showing him in his village, being called to adventure, resisting, getting advice, and taking that crucial step forward, start with him facing a test and meeting an ally.  Throw in little details that suggest the first five elements as backstory.  Your piece ends with the ordeal, and the rest is summarized as a quick epilogue.

Alternately, focus a story on being called to adventure and end with him beginning his journey.  Or, the story can be about his return home from his travels.

It’s a simple concept, but it’s what I needed to learn to be able to write the length I desire.  As soon as I have time, I’ll try utilizing my advice above and let you know how it turns out.

What about you?  What kind of writer are you?  Do you follow this methodology?

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3 thoughts on “How to Make Your Short Story Short

  1. Pingback: My Creative Process | brianwfoster.com

  2. Pingback: The Best Fantasy Websites/Magazine For a Beginner to Get Published?

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