Steve Liskow (Guest Blogger)
If you have children, you know that everything you thought you knew about parenting goes out the window when the next baby comes along. It’s the same way with short stories.
Every time I write one, it’s like reinventing the wheel. I’ve come to believe there is only one hard and fast rule about writing short stories, and here it is:
Don’t worry about getting anything right the first time—plot, characters, setting, word count—because you will revise everything over and over before it’s right. When you think it’s finished, put it away for a month, then print it and read it out loud. You’ll hear things you love, but you’ll hear lots of details and ideas you can make sharper.
Everything else is open for discussion.
Short stories are an exercise in how much you can leave out, which means that you have to remember the essentials.
CHARACTER: somebody wants something.
CONFLICT: someone or something is preventing her from getting it. Make it basic so you don’t have to explain anything. Back story kills more short stories than a dangling participle.
Change can generate conflict: a new home, a new job, a new school, a divorce. Murder shakes up the status quo really well.
STAKES: the audience must believe it matters to the character, even if they don’t agree with her. The big issues that you can’t take back are love, death, safety/security (family, job, etc), and social approval.
I try to limit myself to no more than four scenes and no more than four named characters.
A SCENE takes place in one location in continuous time, during which one person attempts to achieve his goal and meets resistance. During that scene, something has to change for a character, the reader, or both. If it’s a character, make the change something external.
A scene only has four possible endings: Yes, the character gets what she wants; No, she doesn’t get it (these work best as endings): Yes, BUT, which adds a complication; and No, and furthermore…
The third is the stuff of fairy tales and myths because the protagonist has to pay a price.
The fourth makes things even worse and increases the stakes and tension. It works better in suspense novels because you may not have time to explore it in a short story. To increase tension, try using a short time span. Only one of my published stories covers more than two hours.
Make your setting basic so the reader doesn’t need description. Most people can visualize a kitchen, office, or miniature golf course, so just include the details that move the plot.
It may seem paradoxical, but this is a good time to talk about ENDINGS. Most endings go on too long. When you’ve set up your resolution, stop. Find a good punch line and trust your reader to get it.
You set up the ending with your opening, but it should still be a surprise. If the reader sees it coming, he’ll stop reading. It’s like trying to tell a joke everyone has heard before.
The ending should feel inevitable, even though people shouldn’t see it coming until they get there. Sometimes, your best bet is to write the story with two possible endings. Pick the more satisfying (and surprising) one, then go back and change the early parts. Remember what I said about revision?
Openings are tough because they should do several things. They establish how the story is being told (POV, tone, and style), introduce the main characters, set up the conflict (which also begins to set up the ending), and hook the reader’s attention. That sounds hard, but it’s very general. In a mystery, all you do us suggest that there will be a solution. Cut yourself some slack and remember (again), you’re going to rewrite this thing many times. Everything will get sharper and clearer, but it takes awhile.
People often stress the opening sentence, but that can be a trap. If it doesn’t fit smoothly into the rest of the story, it can become a gimmick and the reader may feel manipulated. Try to hook the reader with your first paragraph, or even your first page.
Start when the conflict is big and crucial. Don’t try to lead up to it. If conflict isn’t present, start by introducing the element that will cause it. Opening near the confrontation means your stakes are already high and you can eliminate all the background explanation that saps a story’s energy.
If you need more time or more explanation, maybe it isn’t a short story after all.
Oh, I forgot. There’s one more rule: Above all, have fun. You won’t make a lot of money in this racket, so enjoy yourself.
Steve Liskow served on a short story panel with Charlaine Harris at last year’s Crime Bake. His upcoming titles include “Sweet Hitch-hiker” in Dead Calm (Level Best Books) this fall, “Hot Sugar Blues” in Vengeance, an MWA anthology edited by Lee Child due next spring, and The Whammer Jammers, his indie thriller about roller derby, coming soon.