I am a fan of the short story genre. It is a rich and diverse genre, engaging us in as few as a thousand words or less (flash fiction) or daring to join the ranks of the novella.
Since junior high, I’ve loved reading short stories and talking about them with others. And even though I consider myself a novelist, I love writing short stories, much like novelists Ernest Hemingway, Junot Diaz, Flannery O’Connor, and Mark Twain have before me.
Publishing short stories, though, is not likely to get an author as much acclaim as writing a best-selling novel will. Nor does a story publication promise much in the way of royalties.
Still, I believe that writing in this genre is a great exercise for novelists. Every time I work on a short story, I improve my skills, such as writing a better first-person narrator or combining familiar colloquialisms with phrases that are new and fresh. Then, I apply these skills to my novel projects.
Need some more convincing? Here are three more reasons why novelists should write (and read!) short stories:
Reason # 1
Writing shorts stories raises our awareness of genre. Starting with the question, “How is a novel different than a short story?” will get you to think about these genres’ most important attributes. By naming these attributes and describing them in detail, you’ll be able to execute your projects more skillfully.
Length is the obvious difference between stories and novels. The brevity of a short story offers writers a tantalizing opportunity: you can experiment with a new and challenging writing style, without having to commit to it over the course of a novel-length narrative.
Other differences concern plot and character. Remember that stories cannot accommodate large casts of characters or intricate subplots. They typically work best when the narrative follows one character’s (two at most) experiences of one specific event. When we apply this focus to writing a novel, we can give protagonists depth and complexity before developing an auxiliary cast.
How do other differences between novels and short stories raise your awareness of genre?
Short stories hold us to a strict economy of words. As writers, we love words and want so badly to use ALL of them ALL the time.
But we can’t.
Short stories in most literary journals are limited to around 3,000 to 5,000 words; some, even shorter. So we have choose only the words that are necessary for clarity. Write only the scenes that matter to your story’s plot. Develop only the secondary character(s) that aid or hinder your protagonist’s primary goal. That way, the story can achieve a full narrative arc in just a few pages.
Just because a novel allows you more words, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be as economical with words. Even though novels give us more space to develop ideas, every word–and novels run upwards of 80,000 to 120,000 words–EVERY WORD must earn its place in print. This is especially true for your first five pages. Readers will open your novel hoping you’ll get their attention immediately and hold it for three-hundred more pages. You can interest them more easily when sentences are concise.
Reason # 3
Short stories teach us to introduce narrative tension fast. When you only have a few pages to get readers to care about a character, the first paragraph needs to introduce what’s at stake in that character’s life. If you can introduce the stakes in the first sentence, the first word, even better.
Just because a novel allows you more time to develop a character doesn’t mean you can take forever introducing a problem. But more times than not, that’s exactly what we novelists make the mistake of doing when we’re first starting out. Tipsy on the breadth of our vocabulary, we weigh down our first five pages with description that is of little consequence to the character’s plight.
Let’s stop it.
Can you remove description from the first five pages? You’ll find that action, dialogue, tension, and what’s at stake for your character will come to the forefront. Later chapters can always be more descriptive once your first chapter establishes all the good stuff.
Now that you’re developing both long and short fiction, it’s important to think about what to do with your short stories. No reason why they should stay hidden in your file folder, serving only to make you a stronger novelist. Part II of Why Novelists Should Write Short Stories offers ideas for the life your short fiction can lead in the real world.
Are you a novelist who enjoys writing and reading short fiction? Share your ideas about these genres in the comments below!