Friday, April 04, 2008

Short & Sweet

By Jennie Bentley

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

That is what a true master of economy and understatement of writing, the great Ernest Hemingway himself, is said to have called his best work. You may agree or disagree – Hemingway wrote some stellar stuff in his day – but there’s no arguing that those six words pack a wallop.

According to Wikipedia, the classic definition of a short story is that it should be able to be read in one sitting. That seems a subjective definition at best, since some people read faster, and can sit still with a book longer, than other people. My husband, for instance, suffers from some sort of narcolepsy when it comes to reading. Five minutes, and he’s out cold. Me, I can read a whole book in one sitting. You won’t find me getting up before the story is over, unless the house is on fire or one of the kids has fallen down the stairs.

Here are a couple of things I’ve learned over the past few days, as pertaining to writing short fiction:

1. Effective short stories get off to a fast start, as close to the conclusion as possible.
2. They usually take place over a short period of time.
3. There can’t be too many characters, scenes, or details.
4. The theme – what the story is really about – has to be extremely focused.
5. You have to convey more than you say (see Hemingway’s ‘short story’, above).
6. Every word has to count.

That last one’s the killer for me. My usual style tends to be chatty, with lots of interjections and loose association, much like talking. Paring down to only the necessary words is difficult, because I love my darlings, and I hate to kill them. It’s something that would probably serve me well if I could master it, but it goes against the grain.

The reason for all of this, of course, is that I’m trying to write a short story. ‘Trying’ being the operative word. I’m not succeeding, at least not yet. I’m at eight-hundred-and-some words, currently. My maximum word count is 5,000 – the usual length of one of my chapters. That’s the time it normally takes me to establish the setting, introduce the protagonist and maybe a secondary character or two, and get things in motion for the first murder. This time, because I’m writing a thriller, not only do I have to do all those things, but I have to save the world, too. And that’s a lot to expect, in fifteen pages.

So what about you? Have you ever tried to write a short story? Ever finished one? How did it go? Do you have any tips for how I may be able to finish mine? And if someone asked you to write a story in six words, like Hemingway, could you do it?

16 comments:

Tory said...

At one of the writers' groups I used to go to, we tried our hands at "flash fiction": in this case, writing a short story in 100 words.

I can't say anything I wrote compared with Hemingway's. But it was a great exercise. After that, 15 pages seemed ENORMOUS.

Joyce said...

I started writing a short story recently and I have a couple of pages done. I write very lean, so I think I'll do okay with it. When I write, I always have to go back and add more description, etc. I just have to watch out for too much backstory. I wrote all that out in a separate document so I know, but the reader won't need to see it.

Gina said...

Short stories are fun to write because they're simpler by necessity -- there just isn't room for a lot of minor characters and subplots. That said, one of my unsold novels started out as a short story -- I realized it had to be a novel when I got to page 40and hadn't even begun to set up the first of four events that had to occur . . .

JennieB said...

Thanks, guys!

Tory, yes, I can imagine that after trying flash fiction, 15 pages must seem like quite a lot.

Good for you, Joyce. You go, girl.

Gina, the simpleness is part of what worries me. Not only do I like words - lots of words - but I worry that if I don't have at least one subplot and some other assorted fun stuff, the story just won't be interesting.

Cathy said...

Jennie,
My first novel (buried away somewhere in the depths of my closet) was started as a short story to get me into writing. I didn't realize I had so many words in me.

Fun post and very informational. I guess I'm so focused on writing novels, I haven't taken time to play with short stories. You can do it, girl.

JennieB said...

Thanks, Cathy. I don't feel like I can do it, but I appreciate the vote of confidence. Maybe the problem is that I just haven't had the right idea yet. I feel like I could write a decent short story in other genres - mystery, cozy, paranormal/ghost story, even romance - but the thriller thing has me stumped. I don't read many thrillers, and I don't think I've ever read a short story thriller. Maybe I need to do some research...

Nancy said...

My 6 word story:

Test results were postive. Call me.

JennieB said...

Nicely done, Nancy. Definitely a whole story there, underneath. Like Hemingway's, it makes you wish you knew more.

Lee Lofland said...

SJ Rozan runs a 6 word story contest on her website. Here's what I wrote for it last year.

Bang! Stop, I'll shoot.
Darn dyslexia.

JennieB said...

Hi, Lee! Thanks for stopping by. I didn't know about SJ Rozan's contest. I'll have to check that out. Thanks for sharing.

ramona said...

Jennie, I've had some success writing short stories and having them published. In fact, in a few weeks I'm teaching a Short Story Master Class and doing MS reviews for an area writers' group.

All of your suggestions are great. My advice is to focus on #4. Theme is paramount. Every single sentence should stick to the theme like tar. Getting the thematic idea in the first paragraph (equivalent to your #1) is also imperative. You really need to pack a hook, even if it's in the voice or tone.

Read the masters, but there are a lot of great stories in literary magazines. Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, all of those publications with "Review" in the title!

Good luck. Once you finish the first, it gets easier.

lisa curry said...

Jennie, nice post! I have the same problem with short fiction -- it's never short! I can write a true/nonfiction story that's actually short -- like those Chicken Soup stories that can't be more than 1200 words -- no problem. But the minute I start making a story up, I can't seem to gear up the pace beyond novel-speed. I don't know why that is, and I really wish I did and could fix it!

JennieB said...

Thanks, Ramona. That's very helpful. I appreciate it. So what's the theme supposed to be like? It's not something I usually think about a whole lot. Sometimes I realize I've sort of developed a theme after I'm finished, but I've never started out with one.

JennieB said...

Lisa, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one. Yeah, you start, and then something happens, and something occurs to you, and another possibility opens up, with another character that brings another little something to the proceedings, and pretty soon you're at 5000 words, and all you've managed to do is introduce a couple of characters and set up a nice, long story.

ramona said...

Jennie, this is going to be bare bones because choosing a theme is complex, but I'll try.

Think of one word that best describes the "message" of your story. The word is usually a relatively broad concept: Betrayal. Trust. Honor. Dignity. Loyalty. Forgiveness. Friendship.

The action is a test of the theme.

The characters are the testers.

The story gives the character space and time to test the theme. What you want to illustrate in a limited number of scenes is how and why the characters test the theme, and how they change by doing so.

This is very general, of course. Hope it helps!

JennieB said...

Ramona, that's very helpful, thank you. Now to figure out what my theme is...