Short Stories are Like Snapshots: Tips on Writing Short Fiction

So, I’ve been doing this First Sunday Short Fiction thing for almost seven months now. I’m enjoying it so much, and I really feel like it’s stretching me and challenging me as a writer in all kinds of wonderful ways. I’ve written a lot of stories since last November–some worked, some didn’t. All of them have taught me things about writing. And though I’m no expert, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned on the subject of writing short stories since I started this venture.

Focus

If a novel is a video of a cross-country road trip, a good short story is a close-up snapshot. The trick is to capture the essence of an entire journey in one or two picture. To write a good short piece you need to focus very tightly on a significant moment, or a handful of significant moments all leading to the conclusion of the story. Some tips on keeping that tight focus:

  • Few characters–the fewer the better. When you have a short story–especially if it’s under 2,000 words–you really want to stick to one or two individuals. This isn’t speed dating–this is an intimate candle lit dinner.
  • I recommend only one point of view, or possibly two. I’ve seen short stories written in third person omniscient and I don’t think they’re as dynamic. They read more like a news article than a story. (Of COURSE every rule can be broken if you do it right. And these aren’t really rules: Like the Pirates Code, they’re more like guidelines.)
  • Pay attention to the details. I’ve read a lot of short stories that read like a novel with all the description taken out. You still need description, but you have to choose details carefully. Think of it as decorating a very small room on a very tight budget. You only have room for a few accessories, and they are all costly and precious; you must choose the ones that give you the most impact for your money.
  • Choosing the RIGHT word–the one with the precise shade of meaning to get your point across–will help keep the focus tight and provide impact to your story. Every word has a denotative meaning–the dictionary definition–and a connotative meaning–the negative or positive twist, the implications that aren’t inherent in the technical definition of the word. The connotative meaning is where a lot of a words power resides. So, for example, look at the difference between “lush” and “overgrown”. Both denote an abundance of plant life. But one suggests luxury, and the other neglect. (A little side note: this is where a thesaurus is sometimes not your best friend. Don’t use a synonym with which you aren’t familiar: you could end up saying something you didn’t mean to say. Acquaint yourself with the common usage of a new word before you try to use it in a story.)

Always, Always Edit

All rough drafts suck. This is as true of short stories as it is of novels, poems and screenplays. As with any other piece of writing, short stories are best when they get a chance to sit in a drawer (or a file on your computer) and cool off. Then give them an editing run on your own. Then send them to others for feedback–preferably several others. Then do a final polish. Just because it’s a short story doesn’t mean it’s a throw away. A well written short story can get under a reader’s skin and stick with him or her for days. A poorly written one . . . well, the best reaction you can hope for is “So what?”

Voice is King

And finally: Voice is everything. When isn’t this true? It doesn’t seem to matter what you’re writing, voice is key. But this is especially true in a short story, because you have only a moment to capture someone’s interest. The good news is that, if you’re someone who normally writes longer pieces of fiction, short stories are great places to experiment with different kinds of voice, to help you find your personal style.

So my fellow writers, who are wiser and better than me–what other tips do you have for writing short stories that make people pay attention? Share in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “Short Stories are Like Snapshots: Tips on Writing Short Fiction

  1. Michelle,

    Wonderful post on writing shorts. They are so much more difficult to write. And very rewarding. They are a great place to hone your writing and editing skills. Every word counts!

  2. Great post, queenie! One that I needed badly since I’m a complete NOOB at short fic. I found that I enjoy writing short fic as a way to keep the brain in tiptop shape while taking a break from the WIP.

    What I’m trying to learn is to omit wordiness and try not to turn it into a novel LOL!

    Btw, I totally broke your last rule, er guideline, Cap’n. Arrr! Yer not gonna make me walk the plank are ye for NOT editing the story I sent you? I really didn’t have the time. Teehee!

  3. Your short story “I hope you make it” really stuck with me. I occassionally find myself still thinking about it. Thanks for this advice. I think short stories might be a good way to practice different techniques and I need lots of practice! Lol

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