Unfortunately, because there is only a small market for short stories, many writers avoid penning them and lose out on an effective method for improving their writing. But Hey, far be it from me to tell you how to become a novelist. There are several great (and not-so great) books on writing. The basics are simple. Learn your mechanics, create a style, find the story you have to tell and write it. Simple enough . . . Or not.
A novel can be an unwieldy thing and often for us “novelists” we find ourselves in a tangled mess of weeds that began as a beautifully manicured story field of thought. Getting control of a story can be like untangling those holiday lights you rolled up and stuffed in a box the previous year. And finding where a particular plot line went into the ditch is like searching for a loose bulb on that same tangled string. So tempting to throw it away and start anew.
Writing short stories, which I define as something between fifteen hundred and seven thousand words, is a powerful way to hone your writing and story-telling skills. To use an overused analogy: One wouldn’t learn about running a marathon by, well, running a marathon. Nope, you’d start off with shorter runs and work your way up to that dreaded 26 point something mile trek. So, I’m surprised when I meet authors who haven’t written short stories.
There are two things on this point that is true. The first is, naturally short story practice isn’t required to be a great novelist. The second is whether you learn effective writing skills in the depths of a novel or through the shorter form, you’re still going to have to learn the most valuable lessons to be successful. My point is that although short story writing isn’t a prerequisite, it is, as I shall share, a very efficient and effective method to becoming a better novelist.
I never wanted to write a novel. Don’t get me wrong, like you, my love affair with stories began at a young age. I read everything I could get my hands on, and my mom had to work hard to keep my scholastic book order form within the constraints of a single mom’s budget. But it wasn’t just a written story addiction. I loved stories in all its art forms.
As a 70s kid, there was plenty of short bites to choose from, especially for a horror addict. There were books, television programs, and even comic books. Of equal influence, however, was music. My dad had left behind an extensive collection of 45s (link here if you’re under 40 and never heard of such a thing lol). Those old records from the 50s were filled with not just songs but stories. And the one that influenced me most, that is still on my iPod, is Teen Angel. A sad little tale about teen love with an awesome reveal at the end…well, assume when you’re seven.
Two minute and forty-second songs, thirty-minute television shows, and tales from the crypt comics share a common thread. It’s such little time and space to tell a story.
And that’s the damn beauty of it.
Sure it may be a real challenge to write seventy, eighty, or a hundred thousand words, but hell if the reverse isn’t true—let me get to know your character enough to care, your plot enough for it to have meaning, and get me to a satisfactory outcome in five thousand words. Will I want more? If you’ve done it right, I will. But if you’ve done it right my reader’s imagination will continue where you left off, and I’ll fill in all the “what ifs” that could exist beyond.
The short story format is so great because it does all those things.
For the would-be novelist, the short story is an excellent training ground. For the new novelist it is a place to refine their skills, and for the veteran, it is the venue to re-polish those skills. Short stories humble the writer, who quickly learns that size does matter but not in the way they ever imagined.
And the short story format does that in four unique ways.
The Heart of the Story and the Telling
Remember those school essays we had to write. Start with your theme sentence and five paragraphs. Your main point, your three supporting arguments, and your conclusion. The format looks just like that of a fiction story. Your introduction, rising action, the climax, the falling action and the conclusion. That’s a story in total. Nothing more and nothing less. It is the heart of the entire thing.
My son sent me a screen shot from law school. An image showing the description of an episode of the television show “Criminal Minds, ” and it read: The team must stop a serial killer. If you watch the show, you know how funny that is . . . Because that sentence describes every single episode.
And that’s the benefit of short story writing. Like that Criminal Minds description, it forces you to find the heart of your story. The thing you most want to say. It’s the cake, and everything else is the frosting (icing if you’re one of those people)—decorate to suit your occasion. If you can’t find the heart in five thousand words, more won’t help.
Writers and Tween Drama
And once you’ve found the story’s heart, you are less likely to make the reader suffer 80 thousand while you figure it all out.
Have you ever encountered a 12-year-old girl who has just fought with her new ex-best friend? Ever been foolish enough to ask, “what happened?” If you have, then you know what a long, emotional tale, filled with back-story, side stories, and sub plots with seemingly no endings feels like.
Many writers worry that they don’t have enough words for their book and yet most stories get in trouble because of too many words. Sure we need to dress it all up, create characters, develop interest, but we want to be concise in that practice—that Missy moved here a year before the fight that created the ex-BFF status isn’t relevant if it’s not relevant. A short story reminds us that less is more and it insists that every sentence count. There just isn’t room for the extra drama or the purple prose.
The short story is the art of mastering constrained writing. Something every writer, including myself, can improve upon. The short story enforces sage advice: When you find yourself in a hole . . . Stop digging.
A Controlled Burn
A lot can go wrong in three hundred pages. Errors, forgotten subplots, ramblings, conflicts in consistency. A short story is like an invisible fence that keeps the untamed horse from carrying us miles away before we get it under control. It’s the best practice ground. Think of it like swimming. If you were new to it or out of shape, you wouldn’t ask a friend to drop you off twenty miles from shore and try to swim back. You’d start maybe head deep and never go farther from the shore than you had the energy needed to safely reach the beach. A short story ensures that you can get back to the beach.
It’s a very controlled burn that allows you to practice your landing and avoid shooting off into space. Look at that . . . You got two metaphors for the price of one.
You’re Still the One
Many famous authors still write short stories. Not because they need the practice, but merely because it reminds them that story telling can be both quick and fun.
Personally, I can’t give it up, and sometimes I find that a short has more heart and more to say than I thought…and then I have another novel.
That was the case for my first novel, You and Me Against the World. That was the case for my fourth book The Devil’s Hour (originally a short called Sam’s Journal), and that feels like it will be the case for my twelve thousand words short titled, The Case of Mister Dobbs.
So if you’re having difficulty wrangling control over your novel or getting it started—start with a short story.
Could be fun.