Monday, December 19, 2011

Writing Short Stories

My guest today is E.B. Davis, short story author and blogger on Writers Who Kill
I’m always amazed when writers say that it’s harder for them to write a short story than it is to write a novel. To me, a short story plot is the basis for a novel, and learning to write a short story is the basis for learning to write a novel. Sounds logical—and it is.
A short story must contain only one plot. The plot is structured in three parts. The beginning presents the problem. The middle provides pivotal information that drives the plot to the end, in which the writer solves the problem—sometimes cleverly in a twist. The writer must accomplish this using a few, carefully chosen words. Once mastered, a short story can be expanded into a novel. But in its basic structure, there is no difference between the short story and the novel.
A novel must present a unique situation or problem in its beginning while introducing the main characters, the setting, perhaps suggesting a subplot and, nearing the end of the beginning, add an interesting complication. The middle must drive the plot, providing the start of the main character’s transformation, following complications and furthering subplots, which complement the main plot. Eliminating red herrings decreases the possible suspects, and the mysterious puzzle forms a logical path taking the main character to the conclusion while suspense builds. The ending solves the mystery while tying up the loose ends of the complications and the subplots, which are solved or are used to provide an avenue to the sequel. In different genres, the elements may vary, but the structure remains the same.
Just because a novel is longer doesn’t mean word choice need be any less critical. Every piece of prose and dialogue must snap off the page. Waxing poetic doesn’t cut it. Too many novels contain flabby writing. Learning to write a short story disciplines a writer to be concise. Word smithing is a wonderful art, but it must have aim and hit the target.
In short, short stories are the prototype of novels, which expand the parameters of the short story in breadth and depth. By word count necessity, short stories are limited, concise and singular.
I laugh at myself when reviewing my critiqued work. My partners point out that I jump from point A to D without showing the steps because I tend to write too condensed, but I contend, better to risk a non sequitur than write ad nausea without coming to the point. A novel is not a lengthy conversation, with a captive audience. If it bogs down, readers quit reading.
In a short story I wrote, “Lucky in Death,” about a murderous grandmother who goes back to work helping her family’s financial struggle, soon to be published in a SinC Chesapeake Chapter anthology titled, Chesapeake Crimes: This Job is Murder, a reviewer questioned the grandmother’s necessity of going back to work because of the insurance. What insurance? In the story, I made no mention of insurance, and because I hadn’t, it didn’t exist. The reviewer assumed there had to be insurance. Not always. Many people don’t have life insurance. Should I have addressed her comment? No. Insurance was outside of the story. I had no need to address an issue that didn’t exist. Don’t be persuaded to expand a short story where it need not go.
I challenge you to do a backward exercise. Write a short story using your novel’s main character and plot. See if you can find your novel’s essence by deconstruction. Formulate a finely honed short story based on your main plot. I bet you’ll learn more about your novel than your critique group’s feedback. Then go further—what is your log line?

Beach author/bum E. B. Davis writes short stories and novels in the mystery genre. When she is not writing or blogging at, she sleeps on the beach, the setting for many of her stories. She is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, Sisters in Crime and its Guppy and Chesapeake subchapters. A Shaker of Margaritas: Hot Flash Mommas contains her short story, “Implicated by a Phrase.” “Daddy’s Little Girl,” can be found at: This short story provides the basis of her paranormal romantic novel in progress, TOASTING FEAR. A Shaker of Margaritas: Cougars on the Prowl presents her romantic short, “Rock the Cradle.” In 2012, the SinC Chesapeake Chapter’s anthology titled, Chesapeake Crimes: This Job is Murder, will present “Lucky in Death” and Fishnets, a Guppy anthology will include “The Runaway.”  


Polly Iyer said...

Your last challenge, to go backward and deconstruct a novel to synthesize the story's essence is an interesting one. Those of us who write multiple story lines might find that more difficult.

I'm one of those who can't write a short story. Maybe one day I'll give it a shot. Meanwhile, great that you can and do it so well.

Nice post, E.B.

Betsy Bitner said...

At New England Crime Bake this year, a prolific short story writer said he believes starting out writing short stories is an excellent way to hone the writing craft and makes you a better novelist. He knows many short story writers who've gone on to become good novelists, but he was hard pressed to think of someone who started out writing novels who later was able to write a well-crafted short story. As someone who's only written short stories and has yet to find the courage to tackle a full-length novel, I took comfort in that! :-)

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Love this, E.B. What a great idea to deconstruct the plot. I think writing short is hard for us wordy people . Great blog!

Pauline Alldred said...

Interesting blog, Elaine. I find I often have to drastically cut my short stories before they are publishable. I return to a protagonist with a problem and an enemy that have to be overcome--beginning, middle and end. Themes are the slightest of hints if they exist at all. In a novel, I go back to a recurring theme until the protagonist resolves the issue or decides it can't be resolved.

E. B. Davis said...

You helped me on my only paying short, Polly, so I think that you can write short stories, but since the don't pay, you aren't interested--and why should you when you are published on the novel market. That's where I'm trying to get. But, I think I'll always write short stories. Ideas for shorts just come to me. I have to write them.

E. B. Davis said...

Betsy-I think what the speaker said is true. Writing shorts forces the writer to stay on the path and not meander too far from the storyline. Words must be used economically, and that is a great lesson.

When I revise my WIP novel, I mostly shorten sentences and figure out how to be more precise in my language or more specific in my ideas. When I do cut words shortening sentences or changing the sentence structure to a simpler form, my writing is clearer than when I use more words.

E. B. Davis said...

Thanks, Donnell. Everyone has to deconstruct their plot in order to sell it. Every query must be active and summarize precisely what the novel contains and do so capturing the tone of the book. I doubt that authors realize what they are doing when they write queries, but that deconstruction ending with the log line should be the first sentence of a query.

E. B. Davis said...

When I've researched short story publishers, Pauline, I've found that many won't publish a story under 5000 words. I rarely write one that long. Not great for marketing, but I think many people read shorts because they don't have the time to invest in novels. So--I don't want my shorts to be very long. 8-10 pages is my max, and mostly they are around 8 pages.

Ellis Vidler said...

E. B., I think your idea of deconstructing your plot would be a great way to write a synopsis for submitting to an agent or editor. It would be a good way to examine your plot for holes and to tighten your novel too. If you're able to do it before you begin the novel, even better.

I've written a few short stories but find them very difficult. I admire those who can do it. Good post!

E. B. Davis said...

Thanks Ellis. I can't help but to write shorts because I get ideas that have to be written. I feel like a kid about Christmas, can't wait because I'm getting a Kindle. Cold Comfort will be one of my first downloads. Thanks for having me on your blog. Happy holidays everyone.