Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Setting Wise Goalposts

By Darwin A. Garrison
2004, Darwin A. Garrison

Not too long ago, I found myself banging my head against the refrigerator at one in the morning.  Though I woke the cat and induced a throbbing headache, I failed to produce a solution to my dilemma: my short story refused to fit in the five-pound sack of a ten thousand word limit.  In fact, all clues indicated that I was going to need a forklift and special trailer permit for the manuscript.

What went wrong?

Many beginning writers face similar challenges.  "I just can't do short stories," is a common refrain on newsgroups.  Fortunately, that statement is false.  Anyone can do short stories.  There is, however, a secret:

You have to set your goalposts properly.

No, I do not expect you to give up writing and take up place kicking for the NFL.  The goalposts in question are your story topic and facet.

A little bit of searching will lead you to a variety of word count based definitions for short stories.  Many of them dance around a ten thousand word limit break between shorts and novellas -- or is it novelettes?  I can never remember, and that's the point.  I believe that a short story is a conceptual construct, not a word count limit.

A Darwin definition: A short story is a piece of prose that tells a story (one story) with primary focus on a single facet (only one!) of the tale.

Clear as mud, right?  Okay, maybe not.

Here's what I'm getting at: a novel or novella has enough room for an author to explore characterization, plot detail, societal nuances, variations in nature as they affect characters, and on and on and on.  There can be multiple sub-stories and plots linked and twisting around inside it doing all sorts of unrelated things until the story all comes together (or not, which is frustrating as all get out) in the end.

A short story, a story that a reader should not have to set aside a weekend to read, has to be focused.  You cannot go gallivanting off to explore every character's deeper emotional needs and development, or to follow the evolution of the local ruling government to explain one nitpicking detail of social interaction unless that is the single facet you have defined for the story!

Now, like all things, you cannot slap this down as a hard and fast rule.  Stories are living things.  They grow and mature on their own sometimes, using the author as their conduit to reality.  However, when you are getting ready to write... before the first word hits the screen or paper... you need to have a very clear idea of the story you are going to tell and the facet through which you wish to tell it.

Let's do a hypothetical example:

Let's say you have a five thousand word limit, for a fantasy magazine perhaps, and the editor is looking for non-stereotypical dragon stories.  (Hey!  Work with me here!)

First thing you have to come up with is the story idea.  Worry about the world and window dressing later.  For now, just focus on the core concept.  DO NOT go crazy with a complicated plot!  Do your best to keep the plot twists to one or two.


Story concept:

A boy who is harassed by street gangs in some major U.S. city finds an unlikely refuge in the main library basement with a studious dragon and a janitor who may be a wizard.  When his new friends are threatened with exposure, he finds the courage to fight in their defense.  Twist: The two never needed his help.  They set things up to help the boy find his courage and become a strong person for defending good.


Whew!  Okay, that's over.  Now you have to decide how to tell the story, the facet of the gem through which the actions will be viewed.  This relates primarily to point of view, but it also governs how you look at the events occurring in the story.  Novels often have a variety of facets to explore the complex worlds they comprise.  If you start jumping facets in a short, your word count is likely to explode and cause refrigerator dents.



Tell the story third person from the boy's point of view.  Explore his fears and challenges.  Let his wonder show.  Bring his fledgling courage to the fore in spite of the potential consequences.  Let him discover the hero that lives inside him.


Once you have both the facet and story defined, print them out and pin them above your computer where you can see them.  Check this paper frequently as you type.

Now for the bad news: you are still going to come in over your limit.

Sorry, that's just the way life is.  You will add a little detail here, explain a bit there, and maybe even go so far as to develop a believable villain.  You'll end up at a couple of hundred, a thousand, maybe even two thousand words or more over your limit.  It's as inevitable as corruption in politics.

So what now?

Here's what you do: print the story out.  Reach up over your computer and take down your goalposts.  Set the two side by side.  Get out a red felt tipped marker or an orange highlighter.

Then go through the story backwards and find everything that doesn't move your story closer to your facet.  If it doesn't move towards where you wanted to go, it may be nice but it's hardly necessary.  The one lesson I learned in high school English is this: "Cut! Cut! Cut!  Less is more!"

I know the process is painful, but it is also cathartic.  You will eventually discover that you can cram the same meaning into far fewer words than you ever dreamed possible.  You can even do some exercises to help train yourself, such as writing a story in one thousand words and then condensing it down to seven hundred fifty, five hundred, and even two hundred fifty words.

So set your goalposts properly, and you won't have to be a million-dollar place kicker to write good shorts!  Or is that wear good shorts?  Maybe have clean shorts?  Mom would appreciate that...