Keeping Short Stories Short


Have you ever had that frustrating moment where you sit down to write the perfect short story for a submission or contest, only to feel like you have no choice but to write a novel (or, if you’re anything like me, a series)? Maybe the contest you’re entering calls for 3,000 words, but you can’t help yourself and end up with 10,000 in the first weekend. Friends, I completely feel your struggle. Sometimes, you just can’t help but build that world and fully flush out those characters.

Keeping the short story short can be difficult, especially for those of us who naturally gravitate towards writing novels. However, sometimes we find ourselves wanting to tell big stories in small spaces. Writing a short story can be quite a different beast from a novel. Pacing has to be quicker, and characters have to be developed faster. It can be frustrating trying to perfect what my sister now calls the “word count crisis.” Here are a few little tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way, mostly by trial and (a lot of) error.

  1. Avoid anything that requires a lot of world-building. I know, this one breaks my heart too. I love my fantasy as much as any writer. I love sci-fi possibly more. In a short story, however, there just isn’t always enough space to set it up convincingly. While I’ve read plenty of amazing short stories from both genres, I am sure this was no small feat for the writer to piece together in such a small space. If you’re feeling bold, by all means, give it a whirl! For me personally, though, I’ve found anytime I set out to write a fantasy short story I wind up with a novella.
  2. Focus on one “crisis.” When you’re writing a novel, you have the freedom to introduce more complex conflicts and resolutions. With a short story, you have somewhere between 1,000 and 8,000 words to introduce and resolve the conflict. That might be pretty difficult if you try adding in copious amounts of backstory, or an overly complicated conflict. I’ve found it easier to stick within my word count when I focus on one major turning point or conflict in my character’s life.
  3. Cut the fluff. This goes back to editing being a tear-jerking process for some of us, but I would argue it matters even more in short stories than it does in novels. If a scene is not serving your story, or if it happens to be full of fluff, cut it and don’t look back. Every word chosen needs to serve the plot and drive the characters forward. If it doesn’t seem like an overly important scene, it probably does not belong in your final draft.
  4. Avoid introducing too many characters. While readers might love having 4 main characters in your novel, in a short story it can just become confusing to try to keep multiple characters straight. It can also cause your reader to struggle to connect with your MC if there is too much else going on. Keep it simple. If the character does not drive the plot forward, or if you can do it without them, cut the character.
  5. Telling is (finally) okay. We hear all the time in writing, “show, don’t tell.” This is perfect advice for adding sensory details and intrigue to novels, but it isn’t always possible with flash fiction or short stories. Don’t be afraid to tell your reader some of what is going on, or why things are the way they are. On the other hand, trust your reader to fill in the descriptive details you might have to leave out.


So, there you have it. I plan to work on cranking out a few more short stories between now and July’s writing month, simply to practice the craft. Though it may not come easily or naturally to you, even the epic writer can craft a compelling short with enough practice. Happy weekend!

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