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The Long And The Short Of The Short Story

Nov 19, 2007
Congratulations! You've spotted a great short story competition and decided to enter. You've had a go at a few short stories in the past and you've been wanting to tackle a novel for ages, but the idea was way too daunting so you've just shoved that to the bottom of your life's "To Do" list. A short story is a much better idea, isn't it? It's just like writing a novel only shorter. Right?

Not exactly!

It's been said that it's not that a short story is long, it's that it takes a long time to make it short. The idea that a short story is just a mini novel is an idea that will mean certain death to the success of your short story, before you've even written the first sentence.

There is an art, and a process to writing a short story, just like there's an art and a process to writing a novel, a non-fiction book or an essay. Success is a matter of knowing the basic principles, and then applying these to write the best short story you're capable of.

The question is, do you have the stamina to make your story short?

That question is easily answered by walking step by step through the writing process.

1. Planning

No matter what you are writing, you need to have a plan. Would you attempt to build a house without plans? Or would you set sail on the high seas without a map and compass? Writing stories is exactly the same. Set out without a plan and you will undoubtedly become lost in a forest of your own words.

Some simple questions to ask yourself at this early stage include:

* Who is your main character and what is their predicament?
* What do they want? How can they get out of their predicament?
* Who or what is stopping them getting what they want?
* How can you apply pressure to your character to force them into making tough choices in pursuit of their goal?
* What will your character learn over the course of the story?

Beginning by answering these few questions will help you know who your character is, what they want, and how they are going to go about getting it.

2. Writing

Once you have a plan for your story you are ready to write it. When you are writing, you are just writing. You are not editing and you are not planning, You are writing. This specifically means that you don't stop to wonder if "this way sounds better than that way". When you are writing you are capturing the essence of the action in your story. You are writing a draft, not a finished product. At this stage don't even think about your word limit. Just write the entire story as you have planned it. We'll take care of the word limit in the editing and rewriting stages.

The writing stage is similar to mining a diamond. When a diamond is mined it is a chunk of rock, with a few glittering pieces to show it is actually a diamond. You don't mine a beautifully cut and polished diamond from the side of a mountain, do you? No, you have an amazing piece of raw material, which you then take to a jeweler who will cut and polish it to show its beauty to its greatest advantage. In the writing process, the jeweler is the editor.

3. Rewriting

Once you have completed the first draft, the very best thing you can do is walk away. It can be difficult to get any distance from your own work, but it is virtually impossible if you try to plan, write, rewrite and edit your story in one sitting. If possible don't look at it again for at least another day. This allows your story time to rest and "breathe", and when you return to it you will see it in a fresh light.

When you are ready, re-read it straight through once without stopping, and without making any changes or marks in the margins. Once you've finished the first read, ask yourself one question: did I write the story that I set out to write? If the answer is no, don't panic. It's amazing how the real story you are meant to write comes out in the writing. At this stage your main focus is to ensure that the intention of the story equals the result. In other words, the story has to make sense, and must flow from beginning to end, with all questions raised at the beginning being answered by the end. It is quite common to do comprehensive rewrites of the first few scenes, as the story you really wanted to write didn't surface until after you'd really got cracking. That's ok. Just go back and rewrite any scenes you need to, to make the story flow from beginning to end.

Some other important questions to ask at this stage are:

* Are there any great leaps in time or place? It is generally best to keep these leaps to a minimum in a short story.

* How many characters do you have? It's never a great idea to have more than three major characters at the most, and I've read great short stories where there is only one. Save the huge cast for your novel.

* Does the story continually move forward? It's very easy to have two or maybe even three scenes showing the same thing about your character. A scene is a unit of change - if a scene doesn't move the story forward, it needs to be cut or rewritten.

So rewriting is re-seeing and re-sculpting. The main purpose of this stage of the process is to make sure the story makes sense. There is a logic to story, and if there are any great leaps in time or place, you may need to add some small linking phrases. Once you are happy that the story flows in sequence you are ready to move to the final phase: editing.

4. Editing

You now need to step entirely out of your creative right brain and into your logical and analytical left brain, to refine and polish your story.

Firstly, look at your word count. Are you way over, way under, or pretty close to the mark? Never submit a story that is over the word limit. Respect the requirements of the competition and keep within the word limit.

Now read your story again, this time with your red marker in hand and a critical eye on the page. Some questions you need to ask at this stage are:

* When does the action begin? This is where your story begins. It's tempting to "set the scene" and "show character" but the reality is, you don't need to. The story always begins where the action begins. If there is anything that needs to be explained you haven't written your action properly.

* Is all the action on the "spine" of the story? Edit out any superfluous material. Again, save it for your novel.

* Show don't tell. This means, don't tell us about someone, show us their character by putting them into difficult situations and let us discern their character by the choices they make.

* Edit out all explanation. As a general rule, ask yourself, "is it an image?" If it's not it's probably explanation and needs to be cut.

* Is there a "solution" to the story? Does the story deliver what it promised?

* Now is the time to ask, "is this the best way to say this?" If not, write it again, and say it better.

You may find yourself rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing over and over. This is completely normal! Most good short story authors do at least 15 drafts of their short stories before they are happy with the result.

So, you've made it through the process and you're ready to send your story off to the competition. Make sure you double space it, that the font size is big enough to read easily and that you've put enough postage on the envelope!

And good luck!
About the Author
Suzanne Harrison is the Director of Writers Central, which offers online creative writing, short story, novel and screenplay courses, plus a vibrant community forum where members share news, reviews and tips, enter competitions and receive 24/7 feedback on their work. http://www.writercentral.com.au
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