Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Holly Lisle's Vision


Zette's Quick Guide to 
Writing Short Stories

By Lazette Gifford

2002, Lazette Gifford

If you are a novel writer, turning out a short story can be a wonderful and exciting experience.  Instead of taking months or even years to finish a project, you might type 'The End' on your first draft in a matter of hours or days.  However, some people have trouble focusing on the narrow limits of a short piece.  They shy away from them, even though they would gladly leap into a new multi-volume epic novel series.

Until about five years ago, I could not write a short story.  One day I wrote three.  I eventually (after much rewriting) sold all three of those stories.   Somehow, the ability to write shorter work (after more than forty novels) had finally clicked for me.  Now I write either without trouble.

In this guide I've passed on a few pointers that I hope will help you focus on writing something shorter.  This is not a workshop, but rather a set of notes that might help you locate that hidden short story.  Nor are they set-in-stone rules, but they may help you focus on the material. 

The most important thing to remember when trying to write a short story is to keep your focus on the short.  If your idea suddenly wants to become a ten-volume epic spawning generations... keep it in mind.  But write the short story based on one incident in your idea.

You may not get this right the first few times, but don't give up.  Short stories are not only fun, they are also wonderful supplements to writing income between those long novels, as well as a way to keep your name out in the public eye.

Good luck and have fun!


1. What is a short story?


A short story is often an incident, not an entire history; an adventure, not the whole quest.  A short story focuses on the defining moment in time -- the high point of tension in the adventure.

Quite often they also cover a limited amount of time.  A novel might cover the entire life of a character, but a short story will draw out one single incident.  This is why writers are occasionally able to create entire novels based on a previously published short story.

There have been short stories that break these 'rules' of course.  But if you are trying to write your first short piece, these guidelines might help.


SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America, Inc.) word count lengths
*Novel -- 40,000 words or more
*Novella -- 17,500 - 39,999 words
*Novelette -- 7,500 -17,499 words
*Short Story -- 7,499 words or fewer 

2. Finding Short Story Ideas & Keeping Them Short


When you get an idea for a story, many of us immediately let it grow as we look at 'who' and 'why.'  Instead, imagine your character or incident, and grow the story from there -- don't look at the character's entire life. 

Don't start a short story with the main character at the age of five, helping in his father's shoemaking shop if the 'incident' is about how the nineteen-year-old young man went to sea.   We don't need to 'see' him that young, though that background can be mentioned as a reason he went to sea, but don't start a short story there.

There is no set number of incidents/days/etc. that a short story must be.  The trick is to limit your writing to what absolutely needs to be told.

Short stories are no different than novels in most writing-respects.  The trick is entirely in focusing on the story and not allowing yourself to wander off that path.


3. How to create obstacles 


Obstacles are important to all types of stories.  If nothing happens, the story is static.  If too much happens, it's unbelievable, and if too little, it's boring.

And with short stories the problem is compounded by finding the obstacles that will not take the story away from the main plot.  In a novel, the characters may take many false leads, and wander all over the world before they reach their goal.  In a short story, the characters are already standing outside the castle, and their wandering is past. This is the moment of truth.  They will still face problems, but those problems will be inherent with what is on the other side of the door.

Many people find that an outline works as both a map and a limiting agent for writing shorter pieces.  





4. Working in the Right Details


Too often, people believe the way to write a short story is to leave out details.   This won't work any better than it would with a novel.  The trick, just as with limiting the incidents, is to limit the details of the story to what is absolutely needed.

World building a massive continent, peopling it with a dozen tribes, and giving each of them their own government and religions can be fun.  But if your story is about someone who finds peace with her mother, and never leaves her little village, don't pile that entire world building into the story.  Concentrate on the details at hand -- the village and the people there.

Most novel writers find this particularly hard.  They often feel that the story lacks depth because they can only focus on the immediate story.  It's sometimes difficult to get the feel right.  Just like any other form of writing, it takes practice.





5. Description


Description works just a little differently than detail. Details are the larger items to bring into the story -- what information the reader needs to know to follow the story and not get lost.

Details are the colors, sounds, scents, etc. that make the world seem alive.  Judicial use of description can help focus the reader just where you want them to look -- either to see something important, or to miss something equally important.

Padding a short story with too much description can be far more obvious in the shorter venue than in a novel.  And cutting all the description to make a story fit a certain word length is also noticeable. 

Keep to the items at hand.  It's no different than writing the details for a chapter where the characters are not in their usual spot for the novel.   Just don't bury them in details, trying to bring in all that world building again.  Concentrate on the important parts.





6. Send that puppy off...


So you've written, rewritten, edited...

The really great thing about writing short stories is that you don't have to do outlines, synopsis, or any of the other distressful supplements to novels.  Even the cover letter for a short story is... well, short.

Do research your possible publications. Read the guidelines, most of which can be found on-line, even for the print publications.


Of course that's not all there is to writing a short story.  There is the matter of actual plot, POV, and all the other things... but if you have been writing longer work, then you've already dealt with exactly the same technical issues, but on a larger scale.  If you have not written either short pieces or longer novels, then this might be a way to get your first feel for them without committing to the years of work that it takes for a normal novel.

The most important factor, though, is just to have fun!