Kate Thornton is a retired US Army officer who enjoys writing both mysteries and science fiction. With over 100 short stories in print, she teaches a short story class and is currently working on a series of romantic suspense novels. She divides her time between Southern California and Tucson, Arizona.
Today, Kate presents the first part of a mini course, in a question and answer format, on writing short fiction.
WRITING SHORT STORIES: A MINI COURSE PART I by Kate Thornton
How long is a short story?
Here are the official lengths from the Short Mystery Fiction Society (the folks who award the Derringer prizes each year)
Flash Story Up to 500 words
Short-short Story 501 to 2000 words
Mid-length Short Story 2001 to 6000 words
Longer Short Story 6001 to 15,000 words
Remember: every venue in which you wish to publish will have their own idea of what lengths they will accept.
What makes it different from a chapter of a novel?
A written scene without these completing elements is a snapshot or vignette, not a short story.
You may certainly use characters, settings, chapters or scenes from your novel in a short story, but your short story must stand alone as a complete story all by itself. It must have an ending, even if you – or the reader! – do not agree with the denouement or ending.
What’s more important, setting, plot or characters?
First person? Third person? Omniscient Narrator?
I want to write a short story. Where do I get ideas?
Other ideas can be a childhood incident or other real-life event. Remember you are writing a piece of fiction, not a memoir, so make sure you have that old beginning, middle and end.
One of the best exercises you can do if you want to write short stories is read them. Read in the genres in which you want to write – and the ones you don’t. Read the masters: O. Henry, Saki, Sommerset Maugham, Edgar Allen Poe. Read Guy de Maupassant, Ambrose Bierce, Shirley Jackson. Go here for some great classics
You will not only get ideas, you will get a feel for the short story form. You will also see how language has changed over the last hundred years or so.
Now read some contemporary shorts: Ed Hoch, Stephen King, Raymond Carver, (here’s a link to one of his, “Vitamins” in Granta) Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Chabon, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore.
Look at the differences, but more importantly, look at what is the same. Look at the “bones” of the story, the structure as well as the sheer reader’s delight of total immersion in a good story.
Now, try to write a short story of your own. Don’t hesitate – start writing now. Write until you have all three elements (beginning, middle, end.)
Tinker with that first sentence until it makes you want to read more. This is your “hook” – hook those readers up front. Remember those classic stories?
Help! I wrote a story, but…
Congratulations on writing a story – now let’s tighten it up. Every first draft of a story can use some improvement. Take your newly-finished work and put it away for a few days. Write something else in the meantime. Remember – there is no limit to what you can write.
Some time later, take it out and read it aloud. You’ll probably find a few things you need to fix right away.
Here’s how I tighten a story – I have been known to successfully reduce a rambling 2,000 word story to a succinct 500 word short-short – without losing the essence of the story. I go through it and take out all the -ly words first. Adverbs are not your friends. (Okay, maybe I leave in one or two. But what do they contribute to the story?) Next, I look at the dialogue tags – the “he said, she saids.” Do they make sense? Are they monotonous? Too colorful? Confusing?
Next, I read for extraneous phrases which do not advance the story. They may be beautifully-written pieces of deathless prose, but if they do not advance the story, out they go.
Finally, I read for pacing and continuity. Does the story unfold smoothly and at the right pace? Does stuff happen in the right order? Did I forget a name, change a hair color by mistake, forget that it was night in one part and day in the other? Do I need to change a few sentences around to make them clearer, smoother, more readable? Do I need to ditch a sentence or two entirely? And why did I name the heroine Gypsophylla when Lisa is a better fit? (Yippee for find-and-replace!)
With any luck, skill & effort, your story is now a better one.