I don’t “do” novels. I mean I read them, but I don’t write them. Short stories tend to hold my attention and don’t overwhelm me, so that’s what I write. I’m also much more competent at establishing and keeping tone/mood in a story than creating a convincing plot. So, our post today will cover three effective techniques for short story writing. I know I promised everyone I’d have a post on verb tenses, like…last week….but I really hate making charts so this is what you are getting for now until I feel like being a masochist for y’all’s sake. I promise, the mood shall strike sometime within the next century.
First, let’s define a short story:
A short story is a work of fiction that can be read in one sitting and ranges in length from 1000 and 20000 words.
Short stories usually have a theme, are comprised of one main character, and a transformative event that shapes him/her.
In order to write a short story effectively, you must make an outline, keep the pace, and establish mood.
1. Make an outline
Making an outline will help you keep the pace, which is extremely important for short story writing. If you know where you are going, you’re more likely to get there in one piece if you go in a straight line.
Go ahead and outline what you want to happen to your character and what you want them to do about it. This will really help you not get bogged down in unnecessary explanations and descriptions.
Because you only have one character, one transformative event, and a small space to get your message across, it’s crucial to stream line the writing. You’ll need to be on-point so your reader doesn’t do this:
or worse, this:
So, ask yourself, what am I trying to tell the reader? What is my message? And from there, brainstorm your character and the main event. They will act as conduits for your message. From there, you can start branching off into smaller details and/or supporting characters, but don’t stray too much. Remember, it’s a short story and not a novel.
2. Keep it moving
What sets a short story apart from a novel is the pace. You really don’t have time to stop and smell the purple flowers. Every single word must advance the action. Don’t go on and on describing something. Make a quick note and move the heck on.
Note: advancing the action is also a good rule to follow for a novel, but it is crucial in a short story.
You can get away with more copious description in a novel because it lends itself to more world building, in which case you will want to flesh out characters and setting for the reader’s investment. Please don’t do a lot of describing in a short story. It’s not the right medium. Have your character do something, or have something done to your character every step of the way. If you need to give back story, try to insert it into dialogue, or give your character an inner monologue while some sort of action is taking place.
For example, in Honor the Suffering, I want to give Talcott more of a backstory. Right before the bombs go off, I have him sit down to write a letter to his fiance. He reminiscences about things they’ve done together in this letter. It’s about about four short paragraphs, and then the mine explodes and artillery starts to fire. Instead of a letter, I could have had one of his comrades ask Talcott about his fiance while they reinforced the trench or something.
The point is, don’t just have your characters sit around for pages talking about themselves, or the world they live in, or the circumstances they find themselves in. That’s boring and frankly, a bit lazy on your part. Get creative, you are an artist, after all. Figure out a way to show the backstory or necessary details.
While a novel can explore several transformative events for your character(s), short stories really only give you the space for one event to really get your point across, and also, short stories are much more enjoyable when they only center on one character. One character and his transformative event is enough for the reader to get emotionally invested. Especially if you can set a compelling mood.
3. Establish Mood
While novels are more or less plot driven, a short story is really mood driven. Of course a short story should have a plot; however, that is not what drives it. As a short story writer, you won’t have the wherewithal to convey an elaborate plot. You have your MC and his/her transformative event, and the underlying message you want to get across. So, it is very important in short story writing to establish mood. The creation of a compelling mood is the spirit of a short story.
What is mood?
Mood is a literary element that conveys a story’s atmosphere and evokes emotions in the reader. The author creates a story’s mood through word choice.
This is different than tone. Tone is the author’s attitude toward the subject. I could write a piece about my drunk mother. My attitude could be one of cynicism, yet with my word choices and the setting I choose, I can evoke humorous feelings in the reader.
The setting, or the place in which the story takes place, will help to set the mood/atmosphere of your story.
Since I’ve already started, I’ll just keep on diggin’ my hole of shameless self promotion. Honor the Suffering takes place on a battlefield. Hardly a happy setting, and this helps me set the mood of the story. Along with my word choices, I am able to create an eerie, foreboding, and disgusting atmosphere with words like miasmal, retch, hatred, brutal, clawing, damned, fetid, etc. These words are dissonant, grim, and bleak, just like war and just like the underlying message I want to convey; the loss of empathy that makes one human.
Let’s contrast this with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The book takes place off the coast of Italy during WWII, on a fictional island called Pianosa. Heller states in the beginning of the book that Pianosa is too small to house all of the action that takes place in the story.
This sets the illogical and inane tone that shapes the rest of the narrative. Heller’s attitude, or tone towards the subject, is mocking, satirical. It’s a parody poking fun at bureaucracy and the brutality of war. An excerpt:
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”
His word choices evoke a feeling of humor, mixed with exasperation at the inanity of all the red tape the main characters have to contend with. Repeating the different ways in which “Orr was crazy,” and how Yossarian was “moved very deeply” lend themselves nicely to hyperbole, an effective device to use when writing humor.
You want your reader to feel something, and you get that reaction through your word choices. Use bold, concise, charged language.
For example, if you are writing a horror or thriller story or a story that is sad, use the word dead and not deceased. If you are writing parody/humor, say divested instead of naked.
Here is a link to a chart with positive/negative word choices. I’m so glad I found it, for I hate making charts. I use the strong and unequivocal word hate instead of the milquetoast dislike because I want you to feel my explicit aversion to chart making. My condolences.
In closing, think about your underlying message, and how you want the reader to feel about it. Then choose your words, and arrange them according to the tone and mood you want to set. Good luck.