After finishing the first draft of All Flames Cast, my mind has become increasingly bent on filling out the world and details of the next book(s) I’m going to tackle. I’ve found myself writing little character sketches, scenes, and short stories to help myself with building a new world for a new book. Over the course of this, I’ve gotten a clearer view of the differences between short stories and scenes, which is something I’ve found over the years to be a bit of a blurred line for many writers.
I went through a university degree in Creative Writing, as I know many, many other writers have, and as a result I kind of went through a crucible. There are a lot of pressures on an undergrad writing student—including the pressure to abandon genre fiction because of the flawed idea that it’s inherently inferior to lit fic—and one of those pressures is to learn how to write short stories.
I doubt I’m the only person out there who loved to write from a young age and was enamored of the idea of writing novels. I wrote my first “novel” (it was a 52-page-long Wheel of Time ripoff) in 8th grade, and never looked back. That book went through a couple of different incarnations by the time I graduated from high school, and I went into college fortified with the knowledge that I’d written a novel and was ready to take on the world.
And then my teachers promptly informed me that that experience was basically worthless: I could neither write novels nor fantasy stories of any kind in my creative writing classes.
While that sucked, and I think many creative writing departments are weaker due to these restrictions, I have to admit that I did learn a ton in those classes. I fell in love with writing short fiction, both because it allowed me ways to explore new stories and characters without having to go super in-depth with building worlds and outlines, and because it was challenging. Writing short fiction pushes me.
On top of that, a big part of the reasoning for those restrictions, at least as presented by several of my professors, was effective. They all spoke about how genre fiction allows writers to be lazy, in that they can use plot devices and magic to move the story forward, instead of developing rich and deep characters. The end result was that I write much closer to my characters than ever before, trying to let them drive stories instead of shackling them into a preconceived plot structure.
That’s not to say that I don’t outline my plots beforehand, because I do, at least for longer works. But when it comes to short fiction, it’s all about the character.
This is where I think some writers can struggle. The shorter your story goes, the less time you have to make it a story. A lot of first drafts I’ve read (and written) are little more than character sketches or scenes.
What makes a story a story is conflict and resolution. A scene usually has only one of these things.
While this of course doesn’t mean that every story needs to have a happy ending and be tied up with a pretty little bow, it does mean that your character(s) need to have a main problem and confront it in some manner.
Now, fitting this in can be troublesome. I’m pretty sure every writer ever has had trouble making a short story work from time to time (even G.K. Chesterton and H.P. Lovecraft. Prove me wrong). What it really comes down to, though, is making use of your space. Concise writing is necessary. Pace needs to be managed. Economical dialogue is really important—and is, incidentally, one of the things that I feel defines my own style, thanks to all those college courses.
The outcome can be amazing. I think some of my best stuff has been in the short story format. I really enjoy forcing myself to step back from the big, whopping novel and dabbling in something a little more freeform, a little more liberating. Check out some of the results here!
What kind of strategies do you have for writing short stories? Do you outline beforehand?