Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

The Delicacy of Short Stories

By Lazette Gifford
2004, Lazette Gifford


Short stories are the appetizers of the writing world.  While some people can live on this fare indefinitely, for many people the short story only whets the appetite for something with more meat.  However, in our rushed world, filled with far too many distractions, the short story is often the first choice of the reading public, and introduces many fans to new ideas, writers and genres. 

There is one fallacy that needs to be addressed:  short stories are not easier to write than novels.  To do either properly requires the same basic knowledge of composition, but the techniques of production differ.  Working with short stories is not an introduction to writing novels except in a very limited way.  It can help a writer learn to work within boundaries, and to draw the picture with as few lines as possible.  It can help perfect voice and character creation -- but it cannot teach you to write novels any more than writing novels can teach you to write short stories. They are not the same animals, even if they do have some basics in common.

For decades (yes, decades) I wrote almost nothing but novels.  A few fell into the novella length, but the number of shorter works could be counted on one hand, and none of them had worked.

And then one day it clicked.

I had been doing a particular writing exercise for several months.  It was to write the first line of a story every day. Just write down a line that I thought would make a good opening to a story.

After a little while I expanded it to the first 100 words.  I had done that for several weeks when it happened:  I saw how the 100 words leapt right into the heart of the story.  I wrote four short stories that day.  I later (after many rewrites, expansion and edits) sold three of those four.

So what was it I saw?

Simplicity, and the art of getting straight to the heart of the matter without dwelling on anything that isn't relevant to that single story event.  A short story writer is looking at a defining moment in the character's life and very little more.

When writing a short story, the author isn't looking at how the war changed the empire, but rather how the single battle changed the man. Short stories are about an experience that changes the life of the main character, and so the story doesn't wander away from him, and we don't care about many of the things that might be added into a novel.

I'm going to go through a very simple story idea and show how I would create a story out of it.  This story has nothing extraordinary about it -- I'm just using the plot to show the steps.

Background:

The town of Perilous had been settled a hundred years before by the survivors of a lost fleet filled with Peril Pilgrims.  Their ships had been swept off course by a late summer storm. The place where they finally made landfall had been full of storms, swamps, vipers, and fevers. Being Peril Pilgrims, though, they had decided this was the will of their God. They stayed. They made it work.

In some ways a novel writer could use something like this paragraph to introduce the world of his manuscript. It might not be a bad opening, even, to bring the reader straight into the settlement. However, in a short story or novel, the plot is far more likely about someone rather than something. As interesting as the settlement might be, it is unlikely that the settlement is the focus of the adventure. It's just the setting.

Instead, there will be someone who carries the story, the Point of View character.

An opening:

Star leapt the muddy street in three quick bounds, cursing himself for not leaving Perilous during the summer. Although he had never been here before, Star had heard about the city from his uncle.  The town might be half under water before the rains ended in another two cycles. By then the vipers would own the streets, having found their way back from the few swamps left at the edges of the settlement. Perilous was not a place to stay during the rains.

That gives us a glimpse of the character, and a bit about the settlement, although not as much information as the background gave us. However, here is where you start looking at the differences between the short story and the novel.

If I were writing this as a novel, I would have something odd happen right away that would draw the reader's attention to the adventure. However, after that initial odd moment, I would step back just a little and introduce the reader to more of the other characters and the setting -- including how it had been settled. The 'oddness' would then come in little pieces, building up along with a portrait of the character, the town and the other people. Novels have mountains and valleys, high conflict points and moments of relative calm.

But this is about short story writing. So what would I do with this one?

First would be defining the event around which the story is going to take place. In this case, because we want to waste nothing, the event should include rain, swamp and vipers -- and peril, of course, but a story would hardly be worth reading (at least in most genres) without it.

Event:

Star, an itinerant trader and former thief, finds himself blackmailed by a local townsman and forced to break into the Temple of Peril and steal a magical amulet for a local citizen.

Now I have a single event to work with and some stipulations that will also go with it. Someone knows about Star's past. Do they know him? Or do they see a scar, a brand, or something of the like that marks him as a thief from a foreign country?

The Temple of Peril will have been founded at the place where the first of the ships made landfall. This will mean a... well, a perilous journey out into the wilds beyond the city walls, and very likely at night as well.

The outline of a short story opening might be something like this:

Star hurries across the street. On reaching the other side, he is grabbed and pulled into an alley. Magic blinds him to the faces and even the voices are distorted. Someone rips the collar of his shirt, uncovering his bird tattoo. They know what he is and that could mean his instant death since the Bird Guild is an illegal organization of thieves.

Star no longer steals because he injured his hands. But these people don't want to hear about his problems. They want him to go to the Temple of Peril and retrieve an amulet of power that has been in the keeping of the priests. Either that or they give him over to the guard.

He agrees, thinking that by morning he'll have found his way out of Perilous and disappeared again. Unfortunately, they use his word to bind him with magic. He has no choice, and fighting the compulsion is very painful.

All of the above material should take no more than a couple pages. By keeping the story tight at this point you raise the tension.  We don't need to know more about the people who grab Star than he does.  We don't need to see more of the town than where he walks.  We don't even have to know much about his past as a thief, although it might be good to have one of the people point out that only very good thieves are allowed the tattoo.

In a novel you might have him approached by someone first, with a more civilized request that he would like to hire Star to steal something. Star would say no.  But because he was not threatened, he might feel he has time to complete the business that brought him to Perilous. Perhaps he works in the family merchant business now, and his future depends on how well he does, so he's not willing to back out of the town.  Maybe he'd even try to find out who wants to hire him.

But again, that would be a 'novel' approach, starting far back from the defining event.  The short story must stay with the event.

This might be the middle:

Star makes the dangerous trip over the wall, through the swamp and to the temple. There will be many dangers along the way, but the worst will be when he gets to the amulet.

That's when the priests find him. No one had ever gotten this far before, and they're impressed -- not that it will save him. What did Frislin promise for stealing this? Star: Not to kill me. Priest: Others came for wealth. Star: My life is worth more to me than baubles. Priest: This will give Frislin control over the vipers. We cannot let it happen.  He was one of our own, but we drove him out.

Star doesn't know about Frislin, but used time during conversation to measure weaknesses and find escape.  He is wounded as he goes up the wall to the window.  In the swamp, blood draws vipers.  Panicked, he yells for them to get away -- and they do.  He has the power of amulet.

Vipers about to kill priest who follows.  Star saves him, but then nearly kills the priest when he tries to take the amulet -- but that, again, is the compulsion. Together they go back to town.

Okay, so now Star has the amulet.  But he doesn't really want to give it to this man who used him, right? 

We come to the ending, which is really rather obvious:

One question needs to be answered.  If the snakes are a problem that endangers others, why don't the priests use the amulet to get rid of all vipers?  Did once, but Perilous was then overrun by rats and other vermin.  Balance in nature.  Too much use of amulet creates another kind of imbalance -- and having used it twice tonight calling in dangerous storms.

Magic used to control Star means he must give the amulet to Frislin.  However, refuses to go into building where Frislin is waiting.  The priest is afraid that the magic compulsion will kill him, but Star points out if he dies than priest is free to take the amulet back.  Frislin won't let that happen.

The priest hears a sound in alley behind them.  Star tells him not to look back, and at the same time orders 'to keep still and wait.'  Silence in the alley now.

Frislin comes out.  Star orders vipers to attack.  Frislin demands the amulet, even after attacked and dying.  Star finally too weak to hold on -- and Frislin grabs and orders vipers to kill everyone.

Star gets it back.  Orders them away, but they are reluctant and he is weak.  One grabs his arm, sinks teeth into his wrist, wraps around his arm.  Star still trying to order others away as he falls unconscious.

Now we have the final step, the denouement that ties up the story.  In a novel this would likely be a final chapter that shows or indicates how the rest of the main character's life is going to go, or how the world survived.  But in a short story we need only indicate how this event is resolved.

Star, barely conscious, is dragged before the Captain of the Guard.  While there are bandages on his arm and his leg (wound from temple) , but captain can clearly see the bird tattoo.  Orders him executed.

However, the priests arrive after taking the amulet back where it belongs.  They point out that the Captain has no right to judge one of their brothers.  Captain doesn't believe Star is one of them.  Priest carefully pulls away bandages at wrist to show a tattoo of a viper around his arm, a sign of their order.

Star goes with him.  Star: You lied to save me.  Priest: No.  All who choose to live their lives in peril are of our community. We are the balance for those who live safely in their cottages, fearing little more than an early frost.  Besides, the Viper chose you.  It is part of you now, and it is a perilous ally. 

Star can feel the snake move on his arm, and knows that he is not destined to be a trader.

There we have a story about a defining moment for a character. The character faced a single dangerous event and is changed in the end.   Star has left the Bird Guild and become part of the Brotherhood of Peril, and with the snake around his wrist, the reader knows that his life is not going to be easy.

In a novel, Star's story could have begun when he joined the Bird Guild.  It could have gone through his many successes, and the injury that drove him away from his former life.  We could have seen how he had reluctantly went to work for his uncle, taking ship to foreign lands even though the tattoo could have brought him death.  Obviously the tattoo cannot be removed -- magical protected.  I would have to work that into the short story as well, or else he's just stupid or suicidal not to have done something about it, especially in a world with magic.

This is not a great story, but it does show the pattern by which a single event in a character's life can be pulled out of a larger tapestry and used.  The elements introduced in a short story will be limited. For instance, even though we know Star is in Perilous to do some trading, we aren't going to look into that part of his life at all, except to mention it.  We are not going to deal with Frislin and the power he holds in the town, or more than mention that he was a priest who had been driven away from the temple by the others.  We aren't going to deal much at all with the single priest who becomes an ally. All of these might make good additions to a novel, but this story has only one goal -- for Star to deal with the compulsion to steal the amulet.

A short story appetizer is just as much a part of the feast of fiction reading and writing as the novel.  Even if you prefer to write novels, an occasional shorter work can be a good exercise in restraint.