This week: Finding The Right WordsEdited by: Choconut
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“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” – Neil Gaiman
“The great thing about a short story is that it doesn’t have to trawl through someone’s whole life; it can come in glancingly from the side.” – Emma Donoghue
“A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” – Edgar Allan Poe
A short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film. ~Lorrie Moore
When I first joined Writing.com, I was under the misconception that writing prose is the same no matter what the format. I imagined any short stories I write would follow the same rules as the many novels I had read until that point. And then, I started to write short stories. They are not the same as novels. Not at all. This may seem obvious to most people, but it took some getting used to on my part.
For example, short stories are short. Of course. I know. But I had no idea how difficult short is. In Year 10 at school, my English teacher told me I have a tendency to waffle, and I think he might have had a point. Condensing a story into a few thousand words takes practise. Knowing what to include and what to push to one side takes some learning. It’s a fun learning experience, though, the kind that gives you a buzz when you finally get it. (That said, I don’t believe you ever stop learning how to improve your skills. There is always more to learn.)
If you are fairly new to writing short stories, it might help you to enter a few of the contests on this site. A lot of them have word limits, and I know from experience how it feels to have only 400 more words to trim. I will link a couple of these contests in the “item link” section.
So, you’re staring at your 3,000 word story that you want to enter into a contest with a 2,500 word limit. The burning question is: What can I cut? My answer is, “Anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to the plot or characterisation.” Check for any places you have gone off on a tangent and used three paragraphs to describe the feeling of rain running down the back of your neck, or something similar. Stay precise, succinct. Cut words like “that” from the narrative. These filler words weigh down a story, when you want to keep it skipping along.
It is also good when editing to cut other filler words. “Louise stood up and walked slowly over to the window.” By cutting those few words, you have a tighter piece of writing.
My other advice is to work on your characters. Build your stories around them. When we first meet them, don’t give your reader a list of characteristics like “brown hair” or “blue eyes.” Show your characters to your readers through their actions. For example, “When Georgia leaned forward, a curtain of light brown hair covered her face.” By describing your characters through their actions, you use less words but have a more powerful and immersive effect.
Dialogue is another way to shave off a few words. Use less dialogue tags and, again, move the action along through the dialogue. This is a tip for writing good prose in general, long or short. It keeps the reader inside the story.
Finally, while discussing the desire to write short stories that are tight, I think it is also important to mention the fact that short stories give you a lot more freedom than novels (in my opinion). Whenever I write shorts, I have the feeling I can do anything with my plot and characters. It feels as though I’ve been turned loose with infinite possibilities. I can do whatever I like to my characters and even leave the ending ambiguous if I wish.
Short stories are fun to write, but they require some discipline. In the end, the only way to ever learn how to write them is to just do it. Have fun with them. You won’t regret it.
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