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?