Okay, so the story wasn’t an accident, but its length was.
I searched for any way to pass lonely Wisconsin winter hours while my coworkers paced an empty showroom floor, waiting for clients who needed a vehicle badly enough to brave low temperatures and icy streets.
I hated all of it. In fact, I never meant to sell cars, either. While in school for auto body repair, I turned in an application to the body shop and they sold me the job on the showroom floor!
During slow times, I wrote. I scribbled notes on the backs of financing forms, filled pages of lined paper with a story, and even based my character off my predicament purely for inspiration—not as some sort of immature way to deal with my frustrating job. So what if a few salesmen wizards had a few bad things happen to them?
The point is I never meant to write a novel. And over the next ten years, I never meant to write nine more to join the first. In fact, looking back at those tragic documents, I really didn’t know the first thing about writing. But I was a hobby writer on my own and with no intent to publish, and I was fine with it.
I acknowledge my million words, and I’m not counting them a waste, but I only wish I found the short story sooner. Yes, that mythical beast I didn’t know existed except in the faraway realm of the Middle School English class, or the legendary land of professional writers.
I’m. In. Love.
The Short on Short Stories
Short stories offer everything you could ever want, in a manageable size. It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet, without the calories, grease, and inevitable bathroom trip when you get home. It’s the best of both worlds, in a way I can’t easily explain and wasn’t prepared for when I discovered it.
Short stories typically need an opening, middle, resolution, character, situation, tension, voice, etc., everything a novel has. But you have to do it in less time. That in itself is the benefit.
You can’t begin with an info dump about the country’s history when you only have 3k words to tell a story. It doesn’t make sense to devote a third of a story to a boring and overly-detailed breakfast scene where characters talk about random things “for the benefit of the reader.”
Nope, the short story keeps a writer on their toes. A word limit and all the same tasks to accomplish—it isn’t easy. Sort of like those ten-minute workouts. While I’m not sure working out at breakneck speed for ten minutes a day will result in lost inches around the midsections of most people, I know writing a short story a week flexes a hundred times more muscles than writing a novel chapter a week.
Short Stories, a Better Workout?
Plain and simple, a short story cuts your ability to employ bad habits. I know how silly that sounds. Consider the top reasons novels suffer:
- Bad pacing, which includes show/tell, erroneous details, info dumps, history lessons, slow-developing characters, nothing happening, etc.
- Confusing elements, which include plot/subplot that doesn’t make sense, character inconsistency, all sorts of setting issues from location and distance to dullness and over-complexity.
- Tone/Voice/Style. I lumped those together for the sake of making a short list. Basically, the readability and overall enjoyment of the narrator/style/tone of the story and how it’s told.
The way the short story prevents those irritating problems from becoming major flaws is the same way quarantining a flea-ridden dog from the others is a good idea. It allows you to focus in on one small section, rather than having your attention and energy scattered over a large area. I purposefully didn’t select an analogy to imply that a short story is practice and nothing more.
Isolating a story without complex sub-plots, a large cast of characters, etc. is a great way to learn how to cut to the chase and get right into a story. A limit of 3k-5k words is a perfect challenge to tell a story quickly and with purpose. It ensures every word on the page is important and does double duty.
When I write a short story, I want the story to feel as complete as possible, even with word count restrictions. To accomplish that, I often have to use a single sentence to reveal not only important setting elements, but also use tone to reveal something about the character by how I word it. That takes practice and it’s the sort of skill a novel never demands you execute.
You have to find an engaging plot element/situation and throw a character in at just the right time. The character has to immediately resonate and doesn’t have the luxury of lengthy narration or exposition. Whether the conflict is physical, emotional, or psychological, it needs to appear quickly. In some short stories, the “inciting incident” we look for in chapters one to three in a novel, is already past. Wow.
How Long Does it Take to Tell a Story?
I fully understand some stories have many layers and deserve 100k words. Let’s, just for a moment, explore one simple story—a treasure-hunter, searching for a fabled relic. As a novel, it might begin at home, where the character’s father dies and leaves him a key to a lost vault, or in a library where he discovers a secret in a dusty tome. The journey might take him through towns, gain him some allies and enemies. He may meet an antagonist, someone who wants to stop him or find the treasure for himself.
The novel contains chapters of journey and obstacles. It’s composed of complex relationships with his friends or family, overcoming adversity, searching. When he finds the treasure, is it all he thought it would be? The conclusion may be a success or a failure of some sort. Maybe in the end he has reason to re-bury the treasure and throw the key into the ocean.
Imagine now a story that opens just as the hero is about to set his hand on the treasure for which he’s spent three years hunting. By zooming in the lens, we get a very different type of story. Those characters in the scene are the most important ones, those we immediately get to know because of the context—the survivors, or the most loyal. Maybe the most treacherous, even.
We can jump right into the character being worried that his comrades will steal the treasure, or maybe they face a brutal and uncertain climb back out of the crypt. Perhaps the conclusion is the character’s dying glimpse of his childhood friend running off with the treasure, or his knighting when he brings it back to the king.
When we take the “story” out of the story, and focus on a single element of the journey, we have a chance to explore another side of character introduction, an immediate goal, and a condensed cross-section of the human condition. We don’t need to learn where the character grew up, we only need to know he’s a man with a goal and he thinks his childhood friend is trying to rob him of glory.
Granted, this particular story is simple, but in a novel, I’d flesh it out and build up that feeling of betrayal with little clues throughout the chapters. I’d certainly have sub-plots that impeded progress or planted doubt in the reader’s mind that the character would succeed or earn a happy ending if he did.
In a short story, you ditch your telescope and dust off the microscope neglected in the back of the closet. How wonderful!
The Benefits of Writing Short Stories
Those elements that often make a novel unsuccessful are hard to practice. Openings are where most books lose readers. Doesn’t it then make sense to just exercise openings more frequently? What better way than writing one a week in the form of a short story. Oh, and look! You also get the opportunity to compel a reader to align with a character, use setting/narrative/situation to make him into a complex person, and you get to test your hand at creating a fitting resolution.
An unsuccessful opening to a 100k word novel ensures a reader never discovers your intriguing plot twists midway, or cries for your heart-wrenching conclusion. Granted, editing is the solution, but editing a novel comes with a price—time.
If the short story is unsuccessful, editing is short and easier, details being somewhat shallow compared to novel-length manuscripts, and if you choose to change key elements, you don’t have to read fourteen chapters and hunt down and destroy every lingering hint of the previous concept.
As Novelists, How Does a Pile of Short Stories Help?
Short stories are the perfect exercise to hone writing skills. I began driving a school bus in October when I was twenty-two. Three months into the job, we had a major snowstorm and the roads were terrible. I cried in my boss’ office and begged he not make me go out. In my head, I saw screaming children as my bus slid sideways down the road. He grabbed his coat and said, “Get ready, I’m coming with you.”
And he did. And I did just fine and didn’t need any help to complete my job safely and with confidence.
Writing isn’t much different. It can be scary to try things with which we aren’t comfortable/familiar. Short stories allow an opportunity to expand skills. Prompt writing, short story collections with shared themes, unusual POVs like inanimate objects or animals can all give us more tools in our arsenal. It doesn’t get much easier than attempting those techniques in short stories.
Recently, I read that chapter one of your novel benefits from being more like a short story. Readers and agents respond positively to openings that jump right into the story, require little setup, and immediately let us into a character. They even go so far as to suggest an opening chapter have a goal and a sort of mini conclusion, like a short story.
Personally, I’ve had way more success with short stories than novels. People respond very well to the techniques I employ in short stories, and I guess I just haven’t figured out how to pull it off in longer works yet.
What do you think? Are short stories an untapped resource for beginning writers?
Did you start out by writing short stories? Or did you dive headfirst into writing a novel?