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Short Story


I've started a new WIP and it's tempting to condense it into a short story.

I've never written anything under 100,000 words.

I spend a lot of time developing characters so that the reader can feel connected.

How do I do that in 7,500 words?

Should I just focus on the story and not worry about character development?

Codey Amprim

Article Team
This reminds me of a college assignment I had for my creative writing course. We were to write a "short story" of no particular length before the weekend. My professor eventually said anything over three pages would be sufficient.

Yeah I said F that. Casuals.

Ended up submitting a 35,000 some word "short story." I doubt she read even a quarter of the way. All I saw was the red penned "A 100" on it. But that's not what I wanted, I wanted criticism. Although she did have to grade about twenty papers, so I understand.

AAAAANYWAYS, to your question. I wanted to try and cram as much character development as I could in that short amount of space. I focused it around a young man in a group of older men that were basically a crew dispatched by the Lord of the land to go about and keep the peace, slay monsters, etc. he had to find his confidence in their darkest hour on their last mission before you would earn their freedom. At the end he basically flips the bird to the king and gets executed for it, after all his comrades were butchered by a hellish beast of the king's own making.

As the saying goes. Actions are louder than words. It is definitely possible to show character development in a shorter amount of space. You just have to focus down on a specific part of their personality you are trying to develop and show a change in. Or at least tackle a realistic amount that you think you can get accomplished within that word count.

I don't worry about the word count so much. I try to get it all written first, and then trim the fat from there - that is, if you're worried about the word count.

Not sure if I helped, but I thought that little bit would be worth sharing.


Thanks Codey,

Well, wiki defines anything over 7,500 as a novelette, under 7,500 as a short story, so that's how I determined the word count.

I'm used to 7,500 words being one chapter.

Right now I have two laborers trying to complete a wall of defense as an enemy prepares to lay siege.

There is conflict and a shared objective that I'm still working on.

The story is there. But if one of them dies or is injured, will anybody care? I'm not sure how important that is in a short.

Maybe the action is enough to engage the reader?

Codey Amprim

Article Team
I'm used to 7,500 words being one chapter.

I feel you there!

I'd be interested in reading something like that. If you could pull that off in 7,500 words that would be impressive, considering the scene you have to set.

I think I would just throw the reader straight in, and let them piece together what's going on. I see the worker's jobs are of paramount importance to the survival of not only themselves, but to the whole garrison. That alone is pretty heavy business. And if one dies and the burden shifts all onto the shoulders of one man, to convey that sense of dread, urgency, and duty will be the challenge. I'm not certain of all the details, but you might want to tackle this in first person. That's just my thoughts, though.


toujours gai, archie
When in doubt, go back to the masters--in this case, Poe and O'Henry. In particular, the former. In writing about his poem The Raven, he observed that a poem should be able to be read in a single sitting; that this should determine its length. You might consider how long a story *you* would read in a single sitting and let that determine your target length, for writing to *any* specific length is a worthwhile exercise.

More famously, he wrote that a short work, whether prose or poem, should strive for "unity of effect", by which he meant the communication of a single impression or emotion. Now, there are plenty of other ways to approach a short story, but as starting points go, that's not a bad one. Can your WiM (Work in Mind) achieve a single effect, with no other effects involved? If not, then it may be more properly a novella or, it may be you can focus on one aspect and make it a short story. Poe also said that absolutely everything in the story must contribute toward the desired end, with nothing extraneous. There, too, we can all name short stories that follow a different formula, but trying to achieve Poe's standard is salutary.

Finally, from another quarter, you could look at fantasy magazines and their length limits. You will find they range from around 4000 to 7000 words. So there's a practical benefit to learning how to write to a length. For myself, I keep a file of story ideas (I'm sure we all do), but it is broken into one list for novel ideas and a separate one for short story ideas.



I wrote 2,000 words of it yesterday. Today I had to take the kids sledding and now the little woman wants me to take her to see Star Wars.

I'm wondering if my seeing it a second time will change my experience for the better or worse.

I might post something of my WIP in the showcase in a couple days after I complete the scene.

Caged Maiden

Article Team
In my experience, I have embraced the power of words pulling double duty. By that I mean that in a short story, you don't have the luxury of expounding on everything you would in a novel. I too write novels that tip the scale at 200k words, and I know how hard it is to write shorts. Basically, my best advice is to write it how you want, and then haul out a chainsaw, a machete, and your thesaurus, to do the bloodletting.

When I write a short, I do not sacrifice character development, what I try to do is let the character and setting and situation come out together. For example, this from one of my shorts:

Shadows danced, creating patterns on century-old plaster and scuffed wainscoting. Dark and light starkly offset in great patches and little speckles. Trees outside the window fluttered in a summer breeze, leaves painted in motion on my kitchen wall–a living mosaic. And a bird. I leaned closer until my own shadow enveloped its delicate silhouette. A mountain jay, judging by its crest.

Kettle on the stove, toasts slathered with mulberry jam, and ten wonderful minutes to myself. Too bad I had nothing other to do than read patterns in the shadows on the wall.

“Rysza,” Grandfather called from the sitting room he turned into his bedroom. “Fetch my book with the drawings.”
I leaned against the counter, shaggy chestnut curls falling to cover my eyes. Sharp pangs rumbled my stomach, angry from emptiness.


I grabbed his piece of toast and tore a chunk off with my teeth. I stuffed the rest into my mouth as I left the kitchen. Stepping over discarded clothing in the hallway, I made my way to the old man taking up the only common room in my house I actually once found relaxing.

“Rysza.” Relief flooded his voice. “I thought you hadn’t heard me. I was about to get up and find you.”

Not likely. He hadn’t moved all morning from my sofa. In fact, he wore out the leftmost cushion and when he went out back for one of his extended stays in the privy, I juggled the cushions so his rear end wore them all evenly. My life–not what I expected it would become. Once, I even had a young lady who came around for drinks and pleasant chats. No one came around anymore. Not with Grandfather there–unmoving, annoying lump that he’d become.

I’ve heard that Grandfather was a fine man in his youth, handsome and charismatic. He’d been dying since I’d known him and growing older every day of the last year. His face didn’t know what to do anymore, jowls and eyelids sagging, while his nose seemed to take up more real estate than I remembered from my youth.

“Don’t just stand there, fetch my book!” His fists pounded against the blanket covering his legs. My blanket, from my bed.

“Sure, Grandfather. I’m getting it now.”

Not that I think this is my best story, but I had a 5k word limit, and I remember one of the judges commenting how every word I chose pulled more than its fair weight. I think that's what is required of a short story if you want to not only have a great character, but put them in a compelling tale. You simply can't have your cake and eat it too, in a short story. There is no room for deep character development, unless it's combined with story, plot, POV, and setting in some ways.

The trick is to get right in there, right to the action and the character, without spending time on the telescope view. I call it the microscope and the telescope, and I think it's our inclination as writers to pan in slowly, as with a telescope (or more appropriately a spyglass), and then get out the microscope when we meet our character. Then we use the microscope on too many things in his immediate environment, trying to "set the scene". In a short story where you have a lot of ground to cover quickly, that simply isn't a viable method. I'm not saying I have it figured out perfectly, but since I've adopted the method, I've had a lot of favorable reviews.

Hope that helps you!


In short stories, I try to do a few basic things to keep it brief.

1) Focus on one or two main characters. Everyone else is a supporting character with no development.

2) Focus on one plot line. You can use all the misdirection you want, but subplots eat up space.

3) Employ descriptions that do more than merely describe. If feasible, most of your descriptions should inform on setting, character, & plot, or at least two of those three. (You can apply this idea to dialogue & actions too.)


Article Team
I was going to say pretty much what T.A.S. said.

I'd also like to add, personally, I'd go character over setting. You can skimp on the world building, but not so much with the characters.

To me, short stories take a character and bring them to a decision point. You may show them changing or you may leave it open ended. The world not in immediate contact with the character can be left vague with only bits filled in to hint at the whole.

I was trying to figure a way to demonstrate my way of thinking when I realized Star Wars has been on my mind quite a lot. Just for laughs, I'm going to try and condense Star Wars Episode IV into a short story. There are probably a gazillon ways to do it. This is just one way how I think it could be done.

If others want to give it a go too, feel free to join in.

First, the most obvious main character would be Luke. And the time frame I would select would be from roughly where he encounters the droids to where his aunt and uncle are killed.

I would start Luke off as someone who doesn't think the Empire is that bad. Maybe he has friends that have gone off to join the Empire, and they're having a great time travelling the galaxy as Stormtroopers, pilots, etc., and he's considering doing the same, once his family obligations are done. Maybe he's friendly with a few local Stormtroopers, and they're selling him on the idea of applying for the Emprie academy.

Besides, the Empire mostly stays away. Sure they're rough at times, but when you have to maintain order across the galaxy, bloody noses are bound to happen from time to time. His father used to work for the Empire as a navigator, and the Rebels killed him when they attacked his ship. Well, that's what his aunt and uncle told him, and they reinforce that lie by telling Luke lies about his father's adventures.

Luke has a friend, Biggs, who's running off to join the rebels, because the Empire took away his families business for having illegal droids, and Luke calls him a fool for throwing away his life.

I'd have Luke encounter R2. Maybe no C3PO to simplify things. And without someone to translate R2's beeps, maybe that would add some mystery when Luke triggers the secret message from Leia.

Maybe there's stuff over the news that the Empire is searching for a blue R2 unit. Luke wonders if their R2 is the one they're looking for. Uncle Owen tells him to get the droid's memory wiped, trade out some of the droid's blue parts, and most importantly of all tell no one. But Luke doesn't do that right away and runs into a Stormtrooper friend. He lies to the Stormtrooper, and he thinks he gets away with it as he goes searching for answers from Ben Kenobi.

Luke searches out Ben Kenobi, and Ben tells him the truth about his father that his aunt and uncle didn't want him to know. His father was a Jedi that fought against the Empire, and that Darth Vader killed him. Ben says he's going to save the princess. Luke doesn't want anything to do with it. What has the Empire ever done to him? He calls Ben and old fool and maybe a liar. He knows the truth about his father, the stories his aunt and uncle told him.

Then, he returns home to find the charred bodies of his aunt and uncle, and his Stormtrooper friend waiting with a bunch of other Stormtroopers. The Empire leaves you alone until you stand in the way of something they want.

Ben dispatches the Stormtroopers like only a Jedi can, and I'd end it with Ben asking the question, "So do you still want to join the academy, or do you want to come with me?"

To me, the trick is figuring out the heart of the larger story and chopping off all the stuff that doesn't matter, no matter how cool it is.

The heart of Luke's story is a boy who wants to leave Tatoonie and and have adventures across the galaxy like his father did, but is stuck on the moisture farm because of family obligations. Add to that the lie of who his father is/was, the threat of the Empire, and to me, that's all that needs to be there.

Everything else can come and go. Yes, even the Death Star and Han Solo. Though you could just tell part of Han's story too as a short story.