Over the summer I posted several times about why we need to write short stories, and each time I’ve talked about writing them to build stock for submissions to magazines, anthologies, or to enter into contests. Today, I want to talk about the art of keeping a story short.
First, decide what length you want to write to–if you have no specific contest in mind, 2000 to 4000 is a good length that will fit into most submission guidelines.
For those of you who have trouble writing short works for contests and anthologies with rigid word-count limits, this is where mapping your story becomes really important.
Let’s say you want to write a story that can be no longer than 2,000 words. You know what the story is, but when you sit down and begin writing, it’s like there is way too much story for only 2,000 words. You need to map it out.
Short-stories are just like novels, in that they have an arc, and you can make it work for you. By looking at it from the perspective of the story arc, you can see what you have to accomplish, and how many words you have to accomplish it in.
Every word in a 2000 word story is critical and has a specific task–that of advancing the the plot. To that end, in a story of only 2,000 words:
- No subplots are introduced
- Minimal background is introduced
- The number of characters must be limited to 2 or 3 at most
- Every sentence must propel the story to to the conclusion
Lets say you are writing a fantasy, titled, A Song Gone Wrong. Because he was a bit too specific when a putting a local warlord’s fling with another man’s wife into a song, our protagonist is now a wanted man. Divide your story this way:
Act 1: the beginning: You have 500 words to show these plot points
- setting: the village of Imaginary Junction,
- the weather is unseasonably cold
- In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is hiding from the
- Soldiers of the lord he has inadvertently humiliated
Act 2: First plot point: You have 500 words to tell how
- the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian
- he is hauled before the angry lord and
- thrown into prison, sentenced to hang at dawn, but now you are at:
Act 3.: Mid-point: You have 500 Words to explain how
- Sebastian meets a dwarf, Noli, also sentenced to die
- Noli is on the verge of managing an escape, but needs help with one last thing
- Noli and Sebastian manage to complete the escape route
- but the guard seems suspicious, hanging around their cell door, hampering their escape
Act 4: Resolution–you have 500 words to show how
- The smart guard finally is relieved by a less wary guard, which
- allows Sebastian and Noli to squeeze through the escape route
- They are spotted at the last minute, but Noli’s friends are waiting, and
- they are whisked to a dwarf safe-house, leading to Sebastian’s next short-story adventure
Once you have parsed out what needs to be said by what point, and in how many words, you can then get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good short-story.
You will see that in order to keep to the strict limit of words, you will have to choose your words carefully. You will have to find words that really convey what you want to say, concisely in one or two sentences. Sebastian can’t give Noli a recap of his troubles in your hearing–all that will have to be off-stage. On-screen conversations are critical–they will convey the personalities and the minimal backstory of the piece.
After a few times of creating short stories this way, you won’t need to think about it. When you know the length a given tale has to be, you can mentally divide it into acts and just write for fun.