Keep it short

The last few years has seen a rise in the popularity of short stories, and a rise in famous authors writing them, at least according to The Telegraph. One of the reasons speculated for this is the advent of electronic readers, and shorter times for reading. A short story allows you to make a brief examination of a character, an idea, or even a mood, and then let’s you get back to what you were doing.

I have a mixed relationship with short stories. I tend to think in novels whenever I have an idea. I like to go into all the depth I can, living with characters to their inevitable end, and through all the machinations of plot and life. That said, I do love writing a good forty minute story when the mood strikes me.

Short stories can kind of seem like an obligation for the aspiring writer. Publishers aren’t as willing to take a chance on your 100K word tome, but they might throw you 4000 words in a magazine. It’s the proving ground for writers. But it’s more than that in the hands of the right writer. Ray Bradbury was a master of the form, each story almost a poem in the way in set the scene and drew you in.

And short stories can often be seen as an obligation to the reader too. Honestly where did you read most of the short stories you’ve ever read: in school (unless you’re like me and gobbled up every Asimov robot story)? It’s a form we don’t take as seriously. It’s not something you can have on your shelf to impress others, and it doesn’t carry the same sense of accomplishment as wading your way through something heavy like Dune or The Lord Of The Rings.

I understand the whole “not having enough time” thing. For me instead of short stories, I’ve turned to graphic novels for my quick read on the go. But attention span is a factor in whatever you are writing. You want to be able to keep your reader engaged, while at the same time acknowledging their schedule.

Actually, you know what? Never mind. As a writer you want to draw your reader in so deep that they gobble up all of your book before they realize they’ve been spending hours. We don’t want to craft novels you can read in snippets. We want to take you for a ride and not let you go until you’ve reached the destination.

But if we keep the chapters short maybe we can have it both ways.

What do you think? Read any good short stories lately?

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10 Comments

Filed under Writing, Writing Goals

10 responses to “Keep it short

  1. Thank you for your post. Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde still remains my favourite short story, with Anton Chekhov’s Lady and the Dog coming in close behind. I love the classic short stories, but am yet to find a contemporary short story that leaves me in awe in the same way. I actually loved the concept and the challenge of the short story format, and for two years this was my focus in terms of my writing. However! I was unable to finish a single short story with a feeling of satisfaction. I am now working on a novel after I came to the realisation that I was trying to pack too much in to a minimum word count. I felt that I did not have the freedom to express my characters and was trying too hard. I really do admire those that can write in this way, but I think it takes something EXTRA special to leave a mark like a novel does. 🙂

    • I agree it can be tricky to fit all you want to fit into a short story. The one thing that’s interesting about the development of “Kindle Singles” is the advent of stories that are as long or short as they want to be. Maybe a short story isn’t a novel, but it might be a novelette a novella or some other hybrid in between, and the digital medium does give us the freedom to shoot for as much or as little story as we want to tell. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. Enjoyed this post. I write and think in terms of a novel but now and again have turned my hand to short stories, and even flash fiction. It is good discipline and makes me think hard about every word I use, so it helps me use a wider vocabulary due to the limited word count. Every word must count. Not that I don’t try and make every word count in a novel; I do. Good luck to all those working on novels or short stories – writing is what matters.

    • I do think short writing is a good discipline for novel writing, especially as a means of making every word count. It’s something we can always be refining, and flash fiction is a good way to do that. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. How many words are your chapters typically, and what is an optimal number to strive for? I try to keep mine between 1300-1400, but I don’t know if that’s too few words.

    • My 80K book will have about 22-23 chapters so 3600 ish words. I tend to think of a chapter as either one long scene, or a couple of shorter scenes that share a common thread. I try to keep them all about the same length, but some are dramatically shorter or longer depending on what’s happening. 1300-1400 doesn’t seem too short to me, so long as it works for your book. If we’re talking single space letter paper (if you’re not a word count person), I try to be around 7-8 pages, never fewer than 4 with possibly one exception.

      • Thanks! That seems like a really good goal. I could stand to lengthen my chapters; they’re generally a little condensed as far as content and storyline.

  4. I’ve loved short stories for as long as I can remember, ever since “All Summer In A Day” blew my socks off in the 5th grade (speaking of Ray Bradbury…). These days I listen to podcasts for 90% of my reading, and that includes short stories. One great place to get them is a program called Select Shorts, in which short stories are read on stage by famous actors. From there, I heard my current fave short, which is “Breaking and Entering,” by Sherman Alexie, read by B.D. Wong. Alexie is a master of short stories, and usually pretty funny too, which is a bonus!

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