The Art of the Short Story

I’ve written more short stories for this blog in the last two years than I ever have at any other point in my writing.

Admittedly, at least half of those are scenes, extra short stories because of the constraint of the forty-minute story, but still much more of an effort than ever before.

I like thinking up novels. I think a lot of indie authors get the idea in their head that to get their work discovered they have to write short stories, get them published in magazines, and that’s how they’ll be noticed. An agent or an editor isn’t willing to put in the full investment of 70,000 words in you but he might read 4000.

For me, creatively, this was writing by obligation and not by desire. I like exploring stories in depth, whether it’s character depth, or an involved action narrative. One summer, a number of years back, I had the goal of writing one short story ever week or so. The first idea is what will be my next novel, Surreality. There were no subsequent stories.

I think for a while I just haven’t been inspired creatively by the form. I am wordy person (so maybe that’s a big part of it), but I also think there’s just a rational limit to how much can happen in a short story.

Writing this blog, and some targeted reading is getting me to change my tune.

I’m working on The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. Most of the stories I’m pretty sure I’ve read in my youth, but reading them again with a writer’s eye is giving me an idea of what a master of suspense, horror, and painting scenes this man was. His brand of sci-fi is not exactly my brand, but the one thing we have in common is that for the most part he seems very concerned with the human condition, and not with aliens or vast empires.

Bradbury explores a single idea in each story, a thought or nugget, “what if…?” and then plays it out with a small cast of characters. In a short story you rarely have a “fully realized” character, but you do have someone you can relate to. I have a feeling The Veldt will have more of an impact on the modern readers of today than it did even on the readers of Bradbury’s day, the worries of a parent who has let their child be raised mostly by technology.

Writing for the blog has helped in that it adds constraints but removes pressure. I only have a set amount of time to write each post, and a set amount of words if anyone is going to bother to read them. But because it’s three times a week, I can run with an idea for a day instead of a month. I can play out something that may have no commercial application at all, just to improve my craft and see what others think. Between these constraints of word count and creative freedom I have written some stories I am actually proud of, and had fun writing too.

And that’s the thing about short stories. One of the reasons they are often used to judge an author’s writing is that a good author can write a novel or a short story in much the same way. Short stories inspire taut prose, accurate but not flowery description, a paring down to the essential. While flourishes are not always a bad thing, a good story moves, it reads well, no matter the length. Writing short stories is like writing a scene of a book, and a novel can be thought of as just a collection of 30-40 of these scenes.

Any short story collections you’d recommend?

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5 Comments

Filed under Short Stories, Writing

5 responses to “The Art of the Short Story

  1. “Writing for the blog has helped in that it adds constraints but removes pressure.”

    This.

    • While I will probably never write sonnets, or haikus like you, I have learned to enjoy constraints, and in fact relish them. Now the trick will be figuring out how to scale them larger.

  2. Katherine C. Mead-Brewer

    I would recommend any of Stephen King’s short stories — he is a real master of this form

    • I picked up “Nightmares & Dreamscapes”, admittedly because it was the cheapest and longest for the Kindle. I will have to give it a read. Any other collections you think are especially good? Thanks for the recommendation!

      • Katherine C. Mead-Brewer

        Yes! You’ll definitely want to check out King’s Night Shift, it’s fantastic — especially I Am the Doorway and Gray Matter

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