During the month of January I will be exploring the many aspects of the craft of writing short, salable works. I periodically discuss the importance writing to build stock for submissions to magazines, anthologies, or contests. However, many authors have difficulty keeping a story short, and there is an art to it.
Some authors are naturally skilled at this, so if you are one of those lucky people, this may be of no interest to you, but thank you for stopping by!
So, now we get down to business. First up is the short story, works that are 2,000 to around 7,000 words in length.
First, decide what length you want to write to—if you have no specific contest in mind, 2000 to 4000 is a good all purpose 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 taking the time to do a little storyboarding becomes critical.
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, you think you have 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 must accomplish, and how many words you must accomplish it in.
Every word in a 2,000-word story is critical and has a specific task—that of advancing 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 the conclusion
For the purposes of this post, suppose we need to write a short story for submission to a fantasy anthology.
This method works for stories written in any genre and for essays, so the underlying method is not “fantasy” specific. I have used the following example before when talking about the (very short) short story, and I use it in my seminar on the subject.
First, we will carefully read the publisher’s guidelines, so we don’t waste our time writing something that won’t be accepted.
- We discover that the guidelines stress that the wordcount limit is a strict 2,000 words, and longer submissions will not be considered.
- The theme of this anthology is Truth and Consequences, and the theme must be strongly represented throughout the story.
Our submission will be titled A Song Gone Wrong.
The inciting incident happens off screen. We’re saving precious words by opening with our main character already in trouble, and everything the reader needs to know will be conveyed in the opening scene.
The Plot: 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 in danger of being hung for treason.
Divide your story this way:
Act 1: the beginning: You have 500 words to show
- setting: the village of Imaginary Junction,
- general atmosphere: the weather is unseasonably cold
- introduce the protagonist and show him in his situation: In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is hiding
- introduce the antagonist(s): Soldiers of the lord he has inadvertently humiliated are searching for Sebastian.
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, leaving Sebastian free to embark on his 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 to keep to the strict limit of words and still convey your story, you must choose your words carefully.
- Use a wide vocabulary to show mood, setting, and reactions. You are an author, so you must craft the prose. It is your job to find words that best convey what you want to say, concisely in one or two sentences.
- Sebastian can’t give Noli a recap of his troubles onscreen—all that will have to be off-stage.
- Conversations are critical—they are the vehicle through which you convey the personalities and the minimal backstory of the piece.
You can quickly plot and write a story of any length this way, just by
- Dividing the specified word count into four acts
- Keeping the theme of the story in the forefront
- Make use of your thesaurus. Put your large vocabulary to work by using words that say what you mean with the least amount of “helper” words (adjectives and adverbs).
After a few times of creating short stories using this method, you won’t need to think about it. Once you know the length a given tale has to be, you can mentally divide it into acts and just write for fun.