Thursday, August 12, 2010

Writing A Long Short Story

Elizabeth Zelvin

I recently had the opportunity to write a story to submit to an anthology that asked for manuscripts ranging from 5,000 to 15,000 words. This is something I’ve never done before. I’ve written seven complete novel-length manuscripts (counting both the published and the unpublished) averaging around 75,000 words. And I have so far completed a dozen short stories, most of them between 3,000 and 4,000 words, a length I have found surprisingly spacious. In some of these, I could have gone longer without making them ineligible for the market I had in mind. But starting out with the idea that they were intended to be short, I found that I had told the story I wanted to tell—plot, character, setting, dialogue, and action—without taking them any further.

Knowing I had permission to write as many as 15,000 words, one-fifth the length of a novel and more than three times the length of my usual short story, turned out to be quite a different experience. It felt more like writing a novel than writing a short story—but not exactly the same. As with most of my other short stories, particularly those that don’t use the characters in my series, I started with a market. The market supplied the theme, and my brain supplied an idea that fit the theme, so I knew I had a story to write. The idea supplied the protagonist and voice, the crime, and the setting, in that order. These suggested additional characters: victim, family and friends of the protagonist, suspects, and characters who served a function in advancing the plot, such as law enforcement, service people, and professionals.

My longest previous short story, with a required maximum of 7,000 words, came in at 6,400 and change. I knew more or less what had to happen, and I knew I had to limit the number of scenes. As always, I wrote to what I know are my strengths as a fiction writer: character, voice, and dialogue. I also wanted to make the setting (both physical and social) in which my story took place as colorful as I could. But beyond that, I had to move straight through my plot in as straightforward a manner as possible. Scene One is the setup, in which the reader meets the protagonist and learns about the protagonist’s relationships and the “McGuffin” that will provide focus for the crime. In Scenes Two and Three, the suspects are introduced. In Scene Four, the crime is discovered. In Scene Five, the protagonist figures out what happened and decides what to do about it. The End.

My process in writing a story that could be twice as long as the one above was a lot more expansive. I didn’t feel as if I had to limit either the number or length of scenes. I didn’t have to keep counting to figure out if I needed to start resolving the mystery. What made it differ from a novel, however, was that several times along the way I saw a path branching off—a subplot, an extended scene, an additional scene, a bit of backstory (which I wouldn’t even consider in a shorter story—or cut in revision if it crept into the first draft), further development of the protagonist’s character, or a new secondary character who would be fun to write—and deliberately chose not to go there.


Chris Rhatigan said...

Interesting post, Liz. In the SMFS discussion group, there were some recent posts about how to craft a short story, and someone suggested that some stories are vignettes, whereas others are mini-novels. I think that once you get beyond 5,000 words (to put a random, exact figure on it), the story begins to feel more like a mini novel. For me at least, it's much more difficult to write a longer story of this length due to the demands of keeping a tight narrative arc.

Barb said...

Hi, Liz. My short stories tend to run around 3,000 words, too. The longest has come in at about 4,200 words (and then it had to be cut to meet a 4,000 word maximum). So I'm facing some of the same questions you did when I consider how to write a story that's at least 5,000 words (same call). And I don't know if I'll meet the challenge. I have the plot idea and the voice, but I usually like my stories to essentially write themselves, i.e., be as long (or as short) as they need to be. We'll see if I can tell this tale in at least 5,000 words. I might end up giving more description than I usually do, but only if it helps flesh out the story, rather than just pads it out. We shall see!
Barb Goffman