This post on plotting short stories by Aliette de Bodard is a timely one. I’m most comfortable writing novel-length stories; I guess I just think long. However, every so often I get a bee in my bonnet about writing short stories (especially as a break from the novel, or for the instant gratification factor). Occasionally, I actually succeed with a short story, but for every one that works I have a few that–for whatever reason–didn’t. I’ve decided to write another Elinor story–about 5Kish–this month, so I’m looking for all the help I can get!
So far, here’s what I’ve discovered about short stories in the last six-odd years of reading, writing, and failing to complete a number of them:
Really strong prose and/or an original concept can make a short story. A friend and I analyzed several short stories together to see why they worked. A lot of them had characters that weren’t accessible and several didn’t resolve satisfactorily, but great prose and an original and intriguing premise carried the story–at least for many people.
Short stories are also good for experimental techniques, like writing entirely in footnotes or encyclopedia entries–the kind of thing that would make readers spork out their eyes if they had to read an entire novel of it.
I prefer to have likable characters, a conventional form and a resolution, so I’m looking at other factors to make my short stories work:
Limit, limit, limit. Limit the characters, limit the settings, limit the plot complications. Sounds simple, right? But hard to do when you’re used to thinking big. Try to have only 2 or 3 characters with speaking parts. Don’t require the protagonist to travel to five different cities spread across an entire continent. Don’t have lots and lots of plot complications, like “Lyra needs the magic amulet of Ambabi to prevent her little brother from turning into lime Jello at dawn, but first she has to find the Wise Ostrich who needs her Magic Feather back before she can transport Lyra to the Cave of Serpents, where Lyra has to battle the Serpent King, but after she wins it turns out the magic amulet was stolen yesterday by the Evil Monkey…”
Start as late as you can. Yes, they say that about novels, too, but I think it’s especially important in short stories. If your big conflict is getting your heroine out of an enemy camp, start with her already *in* captivity, instead of walking along the jungle paths looking for tasty bananas for her supper. If the conflict is getting off a hostile planet you’ve crashlanded on, start with being stranded, and fill in the relevant backstory as you go along.
Keep the scope focused and personal, even if the stakes are global. Instead of having the mighty armies clash on the battlefield, zoom in on the duel-to-the-death between the two commanders that will settle the fate of two countries. Make these conflicts personal, between individuals, even if the consequences are far-reaching.
Do you have any wisdom to share in the writing of short stories?