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Help! I'm actually terrible at short stories.

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by DragonOfTheAerie, Nov 26, 2017.

  1. I'm trying to write some short stories (after planning and intending to for like a year) and I'm discovering that I'm actually no good at it. I've only ever written stories on a large scale. Writing a much shorter story is difficult for me.

    First of all, I can't plot. At all. I can't think of a plot that will fit comfortably within the frame of a short story. I'm just used to plots being larger scale. I'm used to devoting scenes to buildup and foreshadowing and having a character go through a complete change throughout the story. I'm not sure how to adjust that to a smaller focus.

    Furthermore, i'm so lost on how character development works on this kind of scale. I'm used to characters growing over time as I write about them. In a short story I don't have time to let that happen.

    I can't finish short stories because my plot is non-existent, or else everything i might want to explore in the plot is too big to fit. I'm a discovery writer. I have to spend some time with the characters and lots of time exploring and writing to even find out what i'm writing about. I'm pretty lost on how to do that on a small scale. I never plan things, and that works for novels, because they take time to grow, but short stories??

    I'm not enjoying this writing at all.

    I've started four and finished one. The one i've finished is probably a flash fiction rather than a short story, and doesn't really have a plot. A boy is wandering a wooded valley with his dog. They start to head home and it's revealed that the boy is alone with his dog in a town that was bombed. It's frustratingly short. I feel like editing could trim it down even further, easily. I can't think of any way to flesh it out. The boy is barely even a character, and his dog even less so. There's no emotion. It was unpleasant to write and just feels empty.

    I was trying to write a twist on the boy-and-his-dog trope, subverting the innocence of childhood, but it sort of backfired. It didn't work. So there's that.

    The others i've started have more potential, but I have the same problems of detachment from the characters and really no ideas for a plot. I'm writing one about a fisherman's wife who finds a baby washed up on shore and raises the child, only to lose her to the ocean again. The fisherman's wife sees herself in the child and hates herself for trying to subdue the girl's spirit as she herself was subdued. I'm not sure how to tell this story, though, without lots of time to develop the characters and show the complexities of their relationships. How am i supposed to feel that the character are real if I don't spend much time with them?

    Can anyone help?
  2. Here's a thought: You could start out writing each short story as a short story, but secretly plan each story into a much larger connecting narration/framework, like the invisible lines joining up into a constellation of stars. Do you get what I mean?

    I was thinking of the tv series Touch while writing this. It's quite brilliant [well, only the first season], and worth checking out just because of how the narrative interlocks so amazingly. At least, I found it amazing.
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    It's really easy to get lost trying to do too much in a short story. You've got one challenge and one resolution, and all of the words are supposed to be supporting that. There's no side stories. There's no layers or escalation. It's just one challenge, one resolution.

    For example: A child loses her dog. In the end she finds it. Super simple.

    The job of the short story is to reveal why that simple plot makes up a story that's worth telling. Let's say the dog is actually the girl's mother's, who is blind. Now there are personal stakes. Let's say the child lost her dog because she did something foolish, like took it far from home so she could join her friends who also had pets. Now there is guilt and an emotional struggle. Little by little you put together the details that give the story an impact.

    You're not escalating the plot. Short stories are all about bringing out those little reveals that make the story surprising.
    TheCrystallineEntity likes this.
  4. ^How true.
  5. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

    What about reading some plot books? There are a ton of them out there and I'm certain there would be one to your individual liking. Some of us aren't meant to write short or long, etc. It's a good exercise though so it's good you are trying. I can't write short either. I have a novella series out and one of those titles is a novelette and it was very hard for me to write it within that word count frame. Ugh.
  6. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I use the Pixar short films to teach my kids at school about writing shorts. The Pixar plot format goes:

    Once upon a time there was _____.

    Every day _____.

    One day ________.

    Because of that _______.

    Because of that _______.

    Until finally _________.

    It's a very basic plot format, but it works.

    A few things you start to notice when you look at their short stories...

    1) The "conflict" or "plot" occurs in the time frame of only a few minutes - hours.
    2) Everything is on a much more small/personal scale.
    3) The focus is on personal journeys that can occur in a short amount of time.
    4) There is a focus on ONLY one thing. It is nuanced, but there are limited characters and events.

    I try to keep these in mind when trying to write short stories. Instead of an epic battle over a few weeks for an entire country, why not a small scale battle between two fiddlers at a single concert over the heart of a girl?

    - The conflict occurs in a matter of minutes (the time it takes to finish a song) vs. a week long battle.

    - The focus is not about public stakes (an entire country), it is focussed on personal stakes (love).

    - The focus is on a personal journey that can occur in a matter of minutes... maybe getting over a fear of being on stage, or learning that no girl is worth fighting with a bandmate over.

    - There is a focus on ONLY one thing. One goal (get the girl), one conflict (the other guy likes her too), one lesson. There are only three characters.

    See what I mean?

    Try watching some Pixar shorts (on Netflix or youtube) and study them to see how they fit so much plot into such a small frame.

    The Paperman is my favourite: (this version isn't the original music, but it gets the point across).
  7. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    HeliotropeHeliotrope, here's a couple of short films that you probably haven't seen:

    Heliotrope likes this.
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    Some things to keep in mind:

    Short stories tend to start as close to the “beginning” as possible. There isn’t a lot of time to orient or establish the status quo.

    They tend to end right after the resolution. Don’t spend a lot of time wrapping up.

    They’re about the transformation of a single character. You start at the point where the events that will lead to the transformation come into play, you end right after the transformation—an irrevocable change of character. The point past which the character can never, will never, be the same.

    Each word does double or triple duty. It describes, but also tells us about the character, or pushes the action ahead, etc.

    To practice, join the 100 word story challenge for December :). Granted, that’s shorter than even a short story, but it will be fun!
  9. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    My thinking is pretty similar. For me, I frame it as taking a character with a problem to a singular decision point. Now, the story can have the character make the decision, or it can leave it up in the air. BUT the story should make a case for both sides of the decision, so the reader can see the character making either choice. Also the ending should change how one looks at rest of story, shining it under a different light. That last part is what I find toughest to do.

    Now, this isn't the only way to think about it and do things, but I find it very helpful to think along these lines.
  10. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    How many short stories have you read? You can find lots of inspiration and examples of good short story writing on the web. There are so many fantasy zines available now, with short stories that are free to read. Some of the better known ones are Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Apex Magazine. There are a ton of less-well-known ones. Take time to read some of them if you haven't. Pay attention to how long each story takes to introduce its characters and the main conflict. See how each one proceeds to give more info about characters and situation, and withholds certain info you might expect in a novel. Look at how much each side of the conflict is described. Try to guess all possible endings, and then see if/how the endings surprise you and how much you enjoy the type of ending presented. Check whether/how the main conflict is resolved. For me, nothing helps as much as good examples.

    After you read a short story, write a synopsis of it. Who was involved, how were they involved, and what did they accomplish? How was each character involved in conflict resolution? How did conflict resolution impact the story ending? Some short stories do not resolve the main conflict presented, but end in some other way. In this case, how did the author pull it off?

    The craft of writing a short story that others will enjoy reading might take as much study and practice as writing a publishable novel. Then again, maybe it won't, depending on the individual author. The point is, don't be discouraged by a few poorly written short stories. Recognizing that they are poorly written is the first sign that you're on the right track. I've seen short stories written and self-published that the author was proud of, but were not good. These authors had further to go than someone who recognizes her current efforts are lacking. Stay determined, and you'll get to where you want to be.

    If you haven't read the short story, The Lady or the Tiger?, by Frank Stockton, I highly recommend starting there. You can read it free here: Short Stories: The Lady Or The Tiger? by Frank Stockton
    Heliotrope likes this.
  11. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  12. I've read the lady or the tiger and the scarlet ibis, but not the other ones.
  13. I really don't read that many short stories. That might be my problem...
    Michael K. Eidson likes this.
  14. Mythos

    Mythos Troubadour

  15. Michael K. Eidson

    Michael K. Eidson Archmage

    Did you analyze how the short stories you enjoyed were written and why they worked for you?
  16. Shall I post the one I did manage to finish in Critique Requests...? It's under 1,000 words, so, really more of a flash fiction.
  17. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

  18. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    When I write a short, it’s always some part of a larger story... therefore, I really don’t write shorts.

    To be honest, I don’t like reading shorts, so writing them always seems funky, but for some reason I still find myself doing it once every few blue moons. Go figure.

    So, my bad advice... to hell with shorts! Miniskirts are better. Errr, hmm. Scratch that, I’d be scarier in a skirt than shorts, and that’s saying something.

    Epic parkas all around.
    Heliotrope likes this.
  19. What about kilts?
    Heliotrope likes this.
  20. Posted.

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