A month ago, I signed a contract to write a short story for an anthology. At the time, I thought, “No problem. I can whip out a short.” After all, I’ve written lots of short stories. Then, I sat down to write it. And it wasn’t as easy as I thought.
When you’ve been writing novels for a long time, the short story skills get rusty. A writing friend who also is in the anthology was having a similar problem. She’d started two short stories only to have them crash and burn.
The problem is the scope and complexity. With a novel, the author introduces layers of complexity—tensions, minor characters, hints of character development, subplots, etc. Short stories only have hints of these elements. Some not at all. Or they focus on one aspect of these elements. Mentally, I knew this. But I couldn’t get it to work on paper. Every idea I came up with was too convoluted for a short story with a maximum of 5000 words. The plots couldn’t be resolved in the space, and the settings and characters couldn’t be developed. I knew that if I wrote what I had in mind, I’d end up with a glorified plot sketch. And I (and my readers) didn’t want that.
So I talked with a friend. She’s been a published writer for years and years. And she’s done it all—novels (sequels and stand alones), novellas, short stories, etc. I said, “Help.” She told me, “Remember a short story (particularly of that length) is a single scene.” I wish I could say that it was a lightning bolt that struck my mind. It wasn’t. But I began to ruminate on what she said.
I realized I was doing too much. Everything in the short needs to revolve around a single writing goal. In my mind, my short story had three settings, several plot points, and too many characters. I realized that my first setting was only a starting place. A place where my characters would start from on their journey—it would have to be cut. I’m in the midst of trying to cut the second setting. A single scene, I keep telling myself.
After taking apart the settings, I cut all but one plot point. My characters needed a single goal. Everything needs to flow from that goal. If it doesn’t, it needs to be cut. (Remember the writer’s mantra, “Kill your darlings.")
But setting and plot trimming weren’t enough. Once I trimmed those, I realized that I needed to dump three of the six characters that inhabited my story. I’m sure some of my readers will miss seeing their favorite characters in the short story (my short uses the characters from my Screwing Up Time novel), but that’s the way it is with a short story.
Now the story is beginning to feel manageable. Of course, I haven’t put pen to paper yet. But in theory, the story feels doable.
What about you? What helps you focus your writing goals for a short story? I’d love to hear your suggestions.