By Sarah Reichert
I’ve never been known for brevity, unless I’m talking to a telemarketer or an unpleasant acquaintance. But in this season of limited writing time I’ve been dabbling in the world of short stories as a means to keep my mind engaged and break from the intensive editing I’ve been doing on my third novel.
To be clear, I’ve never enjoyed writing short stories. Its not that I don’t think they are a wonderful forum. I love reading short stories, they usually are entertaining without being something I have to commit hours too. But there have been unsatisfying ones and its made me wonder; what makes a good short story?
1.) Margaret Atwood once said, “Unless something has gone disastrously wrong, other people aren’t that interesting to write about.” In a short story that ‘disastrously wrong’ must happen earlier rather than later. There isn’t space in a 1-20,000 word story to draw things out. Have your character thrown into the mystery or conflict early. At the very least, lay down a heavy foreshadow in the first few moments.
2.) Make that conflict intense or strange enough to engage your reader. In general, our normal lives are quite boring so if you want to captivate, make it fantastical. A mysterious drawing that appears on a CEO’s desk every Tuesday morning. A lone survivor wakes up in the wreckage of a plane crash…on another planet.
3.) Boil down the description, character development, and scenery to the most viscerally thick sentences. You don’t have many words so use good ones. Avoid over describing or repeating details. Short stories should be wonders of economy.
4.) Let your character’s freak-flag fly. Give them an anomaly or quirk that speaks volumes about them in one simple characteristic. They never-ever leave home without their own pre-packaged food. They faint at the sight of terriers. They are extremely sweaty. They still have an imaginary friend at the age of 40. They have an irrational fear of Christmas trees. Whatever the case, make it something that drives the story, stirs the pot of conflict, or keeps them from succeeding in life.
5.) On a more technical note, remember when submitting your short story, always, always, always, follow the specific guidelines for the literary journal or magazine you’re submitting to. Also, make sure that your story is a good match for them by reading past volumes and understanding the audience that they feed.
Do you enjoy writing short stories? What are some of your favorites?