By Lori DeBoer
Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” Henry nailed it; writing short is more challenging than writing long. There is promise and magic inherent in the short story, but there are common common traps that waylay unwary writers.
Many traps are caused by the form itself. Short stories create a sense of mystery, because their small footprint requires them to allude to larger themes, rather than hitting readers squarely over the head with them. Short story writers should look for the epiphany, the transcendent moment. A strong piece of short writing almost always focuses on a moment of profound realization, of creating that singular, atmospheric effect.
As V.S. Pritchett noted, a short story is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.”
Joseph O’Connor, writing in Dublin in 1997 in his introduction to his Fish Anthology: Dog Days and Other Stories, had this to say about the form: “The short story is one of the greatest, most challenging, most infuriating forms of literature. They look so easy! That’s the thing about really good short stories. They don’t read like they were written. They read like they simply grew on the page. When we read the work of a short story maestro like Joyce or Frank O’Connor or Richard Ford or Alice Munro or Mary Lavin, we think, yes, there is just a rightness about that sentence, that image, that line of speech. But anyone who has ever tried to write a short story will know just how tough it is to hit that reverberating note, to say something – anything at all – worthwhile about the human condition, in five thousand words or less. It’s hard.”
The shorter the piece, the more perfect and polished it must be. That’s why many writers come to short stories later in their careers. Writing in this genre requires a sense of precision; everything counts, nothing is extraneous or by chance. A short piece of fiction at once a work of art, as closely related to poetry as it is to its long cousin, the novel. Yet, it still must still contain elements of story.
With these parameters, it’s relatively easy for a newbie writer to go astray, but it’s also easier for a beginner to fix short pieces. Let’s talk about some traps that imperil the untutored writer.
The trap of writing too large
A good short story is concise, I repeat, and creates a singular effect. For example, Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories create a sense of dissonance and eerie unease in the reader. Kevin Brockmeier’s short stories rely on a punchy absurdity with profound moments of realization. Antonia Nelson’s short stories contrast everyday reality with points of pain and crisis. Beginners go awry by trying to say too much. They cram too many story lines or encompass too large a period of time into their stories. When you do this, you simply skim the surface, and end up writing a story treatment or plot outline for a novel.
Quick escape: Contain your short stories to a short time frame and only two or three settings. When I write a short story, I find it useful to shoot for something really short, such as a prose poem. When things get out of hand, as they often do, I’ve then ended up with an actual short story rather than a novel.
The trap of writing too small
It’s fine to shoot for shorter, but a typical short story is larger than a poem or piece of flash fiction. You end up writing too small when you have a weak premise or trivial theme; the result is a story that lumbers along, trying to pick up speed. Trivial themes arise when there’s nothing at stake and really no point in the main characters to pursue their story goal. You’ll know you have a trivial theme when you are finding it hard to stretch your story out to five pages or more, or if your characters are all sitting around drinking coffee or smoking weed. If you find yourself not caring about what happens to the characters, neither will your reader. If you feel you are writing a narrative that is merely experimental or for effect, chances are you are writing too small. If there’s no heart in your story, you might also be writing too small.
Quick escape: Make your story events arise out of character goals set in each scene. The stories unfold because of the consequences of each decision the main character makes. Doing so automatically enlarges the story.
The trap of too much backstory, too early
If you’ve been trapped at a party with a stranger who is regaling you with all the sordid details of their life, you’ve experienced too much backstory. It’s harder for writers to realize they are doing this, because you don’t actually see your reader backing away. Backstory for the fiction writer functions the same as research; as a creator, you need to know all that background to make sense of what you are writing. That doesn’t mean the reader needs an info dump at the beginning. A prologue is nothing more than formalized backstory, and unless it’s done very cleverly, most agents and editors hate prologues. Backstory works best when it comes in at points where the reader needs to know some personal history to make sense of the character’s motivations. The current story line needs to be taut and tense enough—like a clothesline—to hold up a certain amount of backstory.
Quick escape: Think of backstory as being on a “need to know” basis. Dribble it in judicious, gossipy bits, instead of throwing it in one big chunk at the front of the story.
The trap of too many characters
Unlike the novel or the epic series, short stories occupy a small stage. If you have too many characters crowding that space, it becomes difficult for the writer to clearly convey what's going on. Too many characters dilute a story's singular effect. The crowd of characters makes it difficult for the reader to hone in on individual voices or mannerisms, to differentiate the important players from the walk-ons. As a bonus trap, when you have a group of characters on the stage, beginning writers resort to moving them around as a group, rather than letting each person occupy space fully. Symptomatic sentences read like this: “Everyone chuckled” or “we all nodded our heads.” If you can’t move your characters around individually, they are just cluttering your story up and taking up word count that you could better use for something else.
Quick escape: Think of the cast size of your short story as being akin to a duet or quartet, rather than a full orchestra.
The trap of writing too loose
Short stories are typically more experimental and atmospheric, with an attention on the language as much as the actual action. While it is true that short stories do not need to be as plot driven as novels, beginning writers should stick with the tried and true elements of storytelling. In the hands of a beginning writer, a postmodern, nonlinear story is harder to pull off. A short story that is too much a pastiche, or series of impressions, tend to make something read in an episodic manner. The longer the story, the more strain on the reader. It’s hard to build a singular effect if the disparate scenes don’t hold together and showy writing can turn quickly into something that is self-indulgent. As a bonus trap, without a traditional narrative, it’s hard for beginning writers to sort out what happens next. Without the main point of view character having story goals and consequences in each scene, the writer may end up writing in circles.
Quick escape: Have a little structure, a blueprint, a map, a plan. Understand the traditional function of storytelling and break that rule only when you have mastered the ability to keep tension on the page and your story in motion.
The trap of moralizing
It is true that stories have profound power, but writers who come to their stories with an agenda—to instruct, convert or reform the reader—put the storytelling in the wrong harness. Such stories always suffer from becoming thinly-disguised lectures, with the narratives so stilted and dull that readers simply stop reading.
Quick escape: Be aware that you are standing on a soap box and then step off it. Let the moral lessons stem naturally from the storytelling, and not the other way around. Throw yourself into telling a riveting story with engaging characters and trust that your values and beliefs will be present in an organic, natural way.
These are just a few of the traps that short story writers can fall into, but there’s more. If you’d like the full list, plus some of simple strategies for making a short story more publishable, please hop over to my website and sign up for my monthly newsletter. The address is: www.lorideboer.net. The signup form is on the home page, two-thirds of the way down.
I’d also love to hear your suggestions for traps that waylay unwary short story writers. If you comment below, before May 1, 2014, and give me permission to quote you, I’ll throw your name in the hat for a drawing for a $20 gift certificate from Amazon.com. You’ll use it only on books, of course.
Lori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award. For more information, visit her website and blog or connect with her on Google+.