“I wish I could write short. I can't. It takes a lot of creativity, dedication and diligence to write short, concise and interesting. It is truly an art form.”
When I saw this comment from writer Melissa Emerald on one of my mystery e-lists, my first thought was, “It’s easy. All you have to do is limit your story to one murder, three suspects, and one twist.” But of course there’s a lot more to it.
The reason I don’t accept any fiction writer’s claim that he or she “can’t write short” is that I neither read nor wrote short stories until four years ago, although I’m a lifelong writer and an avid reader of fiction. I was surprised to find how spacious 3,000 words could be, happy when the story was accepted in my local Sisters in Crime chapter’s anthology, and thrilled when it was nominated for an Agatha. So I was very, very motivated to try another short. Four years later, I have fallen in love with the form. The ratio of inspiration to agony is better, it’s more marketable (at the reward level if not at the making-a-living level), and a short story doesn’t take a year of your life and break your heart. As you probably can tell, I’m not one of those novelists whose blithe fingers twinkle as they dance their way through the first draft.
So can short story writing be taught to a writer who thinks she “can’t write short”? Let’s look at some of the basic elements of fiction or storytelling: structure, characterization, and pace.
I was kidding when I said, “It’s easy.” But the rule of one murder, three suspects, and one twist was actually how I wrote at least a couple of my short stories about my series protagonist, Bruce Kohler, though I hadn’t formulated it at the time. The basic structure of a murder mystery is simple: crime, investigation, and climax and resolution. In practice, most novelists struggle to avoid the proverbial “sagging middle.” To spin out their story to the minimum required length of 70,000 words, they use a number of devices: subplots, additional crimes, multiple points of view, extended dialogue, extended narrative such as description of the setting, backstory, and action scenes involving personal danger to the protagonist. To write short, leave those out. And don’t leave out that crucial twist or punch line at the end. It’s like the confrontation followed by slow unraveling in a novel, only a lot shorter.
Here, I’d suggest the opposite of what you do with structure. Don’t skimp on characterization. Show, don’t tell. Leave out any traits extraneous to the particular story, or if they’re central to the character, sketch them in quickly. For example, Bruce is a recovering alcoholic. In one story, that’s crucial to his solving of the murder. In another, it’s not, but we pick it up from a few sardonic references in Bruce’s distinctive voice. Voice, by the way, is as essential to the short story as it is to the novel, maybe more. It needs to grab the reader from the very first line.
The key to pace in a short story is something else that the novelist already knows: Kill your darlings. Leave out the backstory. Avoid lush descriptive passages and blow by blow descriptions of the protagonist’s daily life, including 99 percent of the details you’ve painstakingly researched. If you can’t refrain in the initial draft, cut them when you revise. All this is true for writing novels too, except in a novel there’s more elaboration: complexities of plot, more characters and relationships, sometimes diversity of point of view.
So what’s left? The bare bones of a good short story: characters that spring off the page, a briefly but vividly sketched setting, lively dialogue, the story itself, which can be simple or concise but twisty, and that satisfying whammy at the end. If you’ve done it well, those bones are meaty after all.