Whether you’re a published writer or you’ve just recently decided to become one, the short story form is a great way to hone your craft. For me personally, as a beginning writer, this form has helped me to vastly improve my writing skills.
A short story is loosely defined as a work of fiction, or nonfiction, between 1,000 and 10,000 words that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Of course different sites and publications will have different word counts, but generally, if you stay within these parameters, you would have yourself a short story.
But don’t just take it from me. Below are quotes from some of today’s best writers.
A short story is the best form for starting off.Joyce Carol Oates
Concentrate on the short story. Do not waste the next five years of your life writing an 800-page block of a novel that might well be a failure.Ian McEwan
They were a great way to begin to learn my craft as a writer. The hardest thing to do as a young writer is to finish something and that was what I was learning how to do.Neil Gaiman
Why Start With Short Story
If you’re reading this then you probably already have a good grasp of some basic elements of story, mainly: setting, character, point of view, conflict, plot, and theme.
For a new writer, it’s hard to successfully incorporate even half of these elements into a short narrative, let alone all of them into an entire book. So, it’s best to take baby steps.
As toddlers, we first crawl before we are able to walk. We probably fall hundreds of times before we even take our first step. Then we fall hundreds more times before we master the skill of walking.
It’s the same thing with the art of writing. Consider the writing classes we take as the crawling phase. When we implement what we have learned from those classes and begin constructing sentences into paragraphs, and blocks of paragraphs into stories, we’re learning how to walk.
I still cringe when I read the first short story I ever wrote, but I keep it in a folder to remind me of how far I’ve come. Next year I will, in all likelihood, look back at my most recent piece and have the same exact reaction.
Writing is an ongoing learning process, after all. And just like a toddler who gets stronger and more balanced after each fall, writers get better by writing and failing, and then repeating that process. I would just hate to have to take 5 years to learn from one mistake, as McEwan said.
What Makes the Short Story Form Unique
Not unlike other forms of storytelling, a short story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It must also have all the basic elements of story. Something must be happening to someone at a certain time and place which results in a change in that someone in the end. In this regard, the short story form isn’t all that unique.
The main difference is the limitation in word count, which, it could be argued, makes the short story form more difficult. Think of it as more of a sprint rather than a marathon. We need to pack as much energy and emotion as possible into the story without going over the set word count. Setting word counts becomes important when we start submitting stories to various publications, which have varying guidelines for length.
In short story writing, there’s no room to meander through the woods, leisurely taking in the sights and sounds and smells of nature. We have to be economical with our descriptions and details without being too vague.
This means that we have to limit the number of characters and/or scenes in the story. Say, I decide to write a war story with a bunch of different characters. I would probably need to be able to characterize all of them as effectively as possible, with as few words as possible.
I forget where I read this, but in creative writing, we’re always trying to say more with less words. Writing short stories has definitely helped me develop the habit of cutting out unnecessary words, sentences, and even paragraphs.
Some writers enjoy the freedom to be able to worldbuild and flesh out minor characters and find the short story form too limiting for them. Others enjoy the challenge of trying to fit an entire narrative into preset boundaries, finding that the limitations actually push their creativity.
As someone who has only been doing this for less than a year, writing short stories has really helped me become a better writer overall. Since June of last year, I’ve had 2 false starts attempting to write a novel. One became a short story and the other has been shelved for the time being. The story concepts are strong but I just didn’t, and still don’t, have enough mastery of craft to be able to sustain a novel-length project.
As Gaiman said, the sense of accomplishment for finishing a project is so very important, especially for creative types. Fortunately, I’ve been able to complete 5 short stories which has really built my confidence as a writer. I now have a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses in my writing, so I know what to work on to get better.