“Six hundred to eight hundred words” – the bane of my younger self’s existence. I used to detest the limits shackled to us by our English teachers in creative writing. Creativity should have no bound, I thought. And how could you manage to fit something meaningful in something so short?
Fortunately, I have grown older and wiser, and since realised the error of my ways. Sure, a short story hardly has any earth-shattering, thrilling, gripping plot with complete character building and plot deepening like a proper novel, but short stories aren’t meant to be novels.
Writing a novel and writing a short story are two very different exercises. With a short story, everything is more condensed, more focussed, with clues packed into every word. Short story writing is the wet dream of my English teachers, who waxed poetic over word choice.
There are several ways you can go with short story writing:
1) The vignette
I personally like the vignette because it captures an emotion, a particular feeling in all its complexity and transformations. A vignette is typically very short, but by choosing your words extremely carefully, it can be used to great effect.
The methods you use to convey the character of your vignette include all the cliché literary devices (repetition, alliteration, figurative language, etc.). This is not something I can really teach to you, save to give you the maxim ‘practice makes perfect’. Write a vignette of about 300 words, and then ask another person what sort of feeling they think you were trying to convey.
Since vignettes are so short, here’s one for you to analyse (whipped up by my sister for homework one lunchtime).
With a shriek like an injured bird, the lock clicked and refused to accept the key. Just his luck. Already he was 22 minutes and 13 seconds late for work and he still hadn’t finished his morning routine.
He tried again. Shove, push, twist. Useless. The lock remained as stubborn as ever. Wiping the sweat from his brow with one of his handkerchiefs, he tapped the key four times. Now it would work, surely.
He tapped the key again with shaking fingers, scrubbing it furiously with a second handkerchief. He’d have to throw that one away. Crouching slightly, he inserted the key into the lock and attempted to twist it. Still the lock refused to give in. He checked his watch. Now he was 22 minutes and 53 seconds late.
He had to get this door shut before he was 25 minutes late, he had to, he had… Two minutes. Actions quick and determined, he flourished a third handkerchief and polished the lock vigorously. Blinking four times, he blew into the lock and waited four seconds. It was time-consuming, but it had to be done properly.
Four deep breaths calmed him as he slowly, carefully, inch by inch introduced the key to the lock. One, two, three, four echoed in his mind as he turned the key increment by increment.
It jerked to a halt. He took four more breaths, then turned it again. It rotated smugly, effortlessly.
Opening his eyes, he stared at his watch. 24 minutes and 42 seconds late. Yes. A smile graced his features as he kissed the key four times.
2) The journey
Walking is quite therapeutic. You can let your mind wander, and there’s a greater chance of you spotting an event than if you just sat at home and pondered the meaning of life.
This is also true for your characters. You can set them walking or driving or horse-riding, even, and show their character from how they observe the world around them, or show the world in the sights they pass. This can be also used as a polemic technique if the purpose of your story is to get your point across.
Then, you can create the complication and climax by giving them an event and having them react.
A great example of this is Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian.
3) The meal
Like a journey, meals are also great. Dishes show a lot about a person, as does the chosen dining location. Great things can happen during a meal; terrible things, too. The description of the smell and taste of a meal can create visceral feelings that enhance how your readers view the characters, and cutlery can be considered weapons. Everyone has a different style of eating; the essence of characters can be defined by how they eat. Food can be shared or played with. Have fun with it. Even the waiters and fellow diners can be used.
I know this isn’t a story, but Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch is a great example of meal usage.
4) The Confrontation
For those more action-inclined, jump right into a scene of action. Start the argument with an insult, or a fist to the face. Slowly let the story seep out.
You might like a flashback or a quick summary of preceding events, or you may choose to just let it out with the dialogue.
5) The Speculative History
You can also write your short story about an alternative universe, as if writing a short historical summary. This is more for big-picture ideas, rather than small snippets of life.
Robert Spencer wrote a particularly good story for 365 tomorrows.
- Don’t try to write a complete or complicated story. It’s a short story, so you can only squeeze one or two emotions/points out of it.
- Your character’s entire life story doesn’t have to be explained.
- Following the above, keep your characters and setting to a minimum (one to two is generally all you need)