Dark and Distant Voices, my fifth short story collection, has just been released. All told, I’ve published over 150 short stories in the thirty-six years since I began writing seriously at the age of eighteen. But when I started writing, I had no special fondness for short stories. I preferred reading novels, and that’s what I wanted to write. But I figured if I wanted to become a professional writer, I should be skilled at writing different types of fiction, so I decided – somewhat grudgingly – to begin working on short stories as well as novels.
Short stories didn’t come easily to me then, and after all this time, they still don’t. They make my brain hurt when I write them. My imagination feels cramped and constrained, and it’s an uncomfortable experience. But you know what? The limits of the short story help focus my imagination and keep it controlled. My imagination – like that of so many artists – is a wild thing that wants to run as fast as it can in all directions at once. Short stories keep it from doing that. And the focus I’ve learned from writing short fiction has helped me write more focused scenes in novels. Plus, short fiction allows me to experiment, to try different narrative approaches and explore different themes, both of which sometime find their way into my novel-length work.
I think it’s fair to say I’ve learned a few things about writing short fiction over the years, both from doing it myself and teaching others how to do it. What follows is an overview of what I think are the most important considerations when it comes to writing short fiction. Whether you’re a beginning writer or you’ve been doing this for a while, I hope you find something of value below. (And I’m quite aware that there are exceptions for every bit of advice I give. As I tell my students, “The only real rule in writing is that you have to use written language to express ideas. Everything else is simply custom, ways of doing things that in general work most of the time for most readers.”)
Some Basic Advice
Length: As a rule of thumb, short stories tend to be around 1000-5,000 words (4-20 pages). They of course can be shorter or longer, but this is a solidly marketable range, as well as a good range for beginners. It’s long enough to practice the basics but not so long that writers are too intimidated to revise.
Keep it Simple: Keep your ambitions in check when learning to write short stories. Avoid massive research or worldbuilding. Elaborate research and worldbuilding can make a story so complicated that you can’t properly tend to the basics of characterization, dialogue, etc.
Story Content: Use violence, sex, politics, profanity, religion, etc. when necessary to serve the needs of the story. Don’t try to shock readers with naughty words and sexy scenes or beat them over the head with political or religious messages. The story is what’s most important. But follow market guidelines, too. If a magazine says that it will not publish a story that portrays violence against children, don’t submit that story to that particular market. Editors say beginning writers ignore their guidelines all the time, and it’s a sure way to receive a fast rejection.
Short Time Frame: One way to keep a short story under control – as well as to maximize its intensity – is to limit the events to a relatively short amount of time: minutes, hours, maybe a day or two at most.
Limit the Number of Characters: Only have two or three main characters, and don’t add too many supporting characters. There’s not a lot of room in a short story (obviously), and because of this, you don’t have the opportunity to fully develop more than a couple characters, and there’s only enough time for readers to become emotionally invested in one or two. If you have too many characters in a story, it makes the story too complex for its length and makes it difficult – if not impossible – for readers to connect emotionally.
Limit the Setting: Another way to maintain focus in a short story is to confine the action to one setting. This can be as limited as one room, one house, one street, one town, etc. The fewer settings there are in your story, the fewer times readers’ imaginations will be yanked from one setting and plunked down into another. Such transitions can be jarring for readers, and unless you’re looking to create a such jarring effect, keeping the setting limited works best.
Point of View: In general, stick to one character’s point of view in a story. As I said above, too many shifts in a story can be jarring for readers. Readers need to time to attach to a point of view in a story, and while novels have plenty of room for readers to become attached to multiple viewpoints, a short story doesn’t.
Simple Story Problem: Stick to one main story problem. Again, novels have room for multiple – and major and minor – story problems. Short stories do not. Stay focused on one story problem, and your story will have more impact on readers.
Scenes: In general, try not to have more than two or three scenes in a short story. Again, for the same reason I keep mentioning: short stories don’t have a lot of room.
Obstacles: Avoid having too many obstacles (because . . . you guessed it: short stories are short). There’s room for a number of simple obstacles, such as a locked door or a character who momentarily doubts another. There’s less room for major obstacles such as an earthquake or a kaiju attack.
Begin Close to the End: One way to keep a story short and focused is to begin telling it as close to the climax as you can. If I was writing a story about a person trying to defuse a bomb, I’d begin with the character already in the process of defusing it, and then I’d work in whatever backstory was needed, probably in the form of short snatches of memory that pass through the person’s mind, distracting him or her while working. Not only is this a great way to keep your story focused, it can maximize story tension as well.
Show Don’t Tell: Don’t tell us your character is an angry person. Show us who the character is through the character’s actions and thoughts, as well as the dialogue of central and supporting characters.
Who Cares About Their Hair?: Describe the physical aspects of characters only when necessary. Again, there’s not a lot of room in a short story, and unless it’s important what color eyes a character has or what sort of clothes he or she is wearing, these details may not only be unnecessary, they may slow the pace of the story.
Background Check: Limit the amount of background information you present on a character’s past. If it doesn’t matter to the story if a character had a poodle named Bitsy as a child, then don’t mention the damn dog.
The Most Important Aspect of Character: A character’s personality – his/her psychological make-up – is the most important thing for a writer to know. How does a character meet obstacles, try to obtain goals, react to people, places, changes, challenges, etc.? What is this character like under stress? If you know all these things, then you’ll know what your character will do in a given situation, which will help you plot your story.
Sensory Detail: Beginning writers usually rely on sight and sound in their stories for two reasons. One is that these are the strongest senses humans possess, and therefore we pay the most attention to them. The other reason is because all our visual media is made up of sight and sound, and that’s how we’re used to experiencing stories. No matter how much you read, you’ve probably watched far more movies and TV shows, and played more video games, than you’ve read fiction. So don’t forget to evoke the other senses – taste, smell, and touch – in your fiction. And here’s an important tip. Since taste, smell, and touch are weaker senses for us, we have to be in close proximity (sometimes very close) to whatever it is that we smell, taste, or touch. This means that these three senses are far more intimate than sight and sound and have a greater emotional impact on people. They’ll do the same for your readers.
Don’t Hide What’s Inside: Visual media can’t get inside a character’s head, but written fiction can and should. To make your fiction more vivid and help readers more deeply identify with and attach to your main character, portray his or her internal world, their thoughts, feelings, physical reactions, memory connections. Also use psychological comparisons: similes and metaphors. When your main character watches the sun rise, does he or she mentally compare it to anything? “Bob thought the sun rose like a giant orange lollipop in the sky.” That’s a terrible simile, but it tells you something about how Bob perceives the world.
Anchors Aweigh!: We experience the world as an ever-shifting deluge of information that comes from both outside and inside us. To create a sense of this for your readers, use what I call Anchor Points. Use a blend of different techniques – a sense, a thought, a bit of dialogue – to help anchor a scene in reality for your reader.
Conflict = Story: Characters can directly deal with conflict, indirectly deal with it, try to avoid it, try to ignore it, but they are always reacting to it somehow.
Conflict = Plot: The character dealing with conflict is what gives the story its shape and forward momentum.
Use Only as Needed: Don’t let your stories become bogged down with too much unnecessary information. Include only pertinent background information. Try to blend exposition in smoothly, in different places, using varied techniques, and avoid expository lumps. If you’re unsure how to do this, write your first draft without any exposition at all then have someone read it. Ask them to mark places where they have a question about something. Any place they marked is a place where they need more information. Add the least amount of information necessary to answer that question and no more.
Straight to the Point: Dialogue must be purposeful, and each line of dialogue should advance the story. Not just the plot; dialogue should advance our understanding of each character.
Keep It Real: Remember how people really speak – in fragments, simple words, slang, and they interrupt each other.
He Said, She Said: Keep dialogue attributions simple and to a minimum. Bad: “Look out!” he articulated with great passion. Good: “Look out!” he shouted.
Lights, Camera, Action!: Avoid having action and dialogue take place simultaneously. Bad: “Look out!” Bob said as he fired six shots, hid behind a dumpster, reloaded, stood, and fired again. Good: “Look out!” Bob said. He fired six shots then hid behind a dumpster. He reloaded, stood, and fired again.
Format: Start a new paragraph whenever you switch speakers. Use italics and no quotation marks for internal dialogue. EX: “Hi, Sandra!” God, I can’t stand this woman!
The event-centered plot is the classic and most commonly used plot design (but this doesn’t mean it’s always the best).
It begins with a character who has a goal.
Character takes steps to reach the goal.
Character encounters obstacles on the way to reaching the goal.
Obstacles force the character to work harder to meet the goal.
Obstacles get worse; the character works even harder to overcome them.
At the climax of story character either . . .
Achieves the goal completely.
Succeeds or fails partially.
Succeeds or fails in an unexpected way.
The classic plot design is useful for novels because it allows for expansion. Keep the goal relatively simple the obstacles fewer in a short story.
If the story is intended to focus on a character, then the purpose is for readers to get to know the character and gain insight into that character. Create the character first, then write detailed character notes. Look for aspects of character’s life that will show character at his or her best and/or worst. Search for problems and crisis points. Use these problems and crisis points to develop a plot that reveals character through story action.
Chronological order: This is an obvious one, and as I said earlier, consider beginning close to the climax. Also, it’s okay to skip stuff that’s not important. You don’t need to show your characters arguing for twenty minutes about where to go out to eat. You can just say: Jill and Sam argued for twenty minutes before finally deciding to get pizza. Or can end a scene and begin the next one with Jill and Sam already at the restaurant eating pizza.
Flashbacks: These can be overused. If you’re a beginning writer, I’d suggest keeping them to a bare minimum or leaving them out entirely. But one or two in a short story can be a good way to present exposition in a dramatic way instead of through dry narration.
Alternating Timeframes: I’ve used this technique a lot over the years. I’ll have a present-day story that alternates with a past story featuring the same character which provides insight into the present-day story. Sometimes the pattern will be fifty percent Present and fifty percent Past, and sometimes it’s more like seventy-five percent Present and twenty-five percent past. Whatever seems to work best.
Snapshot Technique: If your story covers a long time period, you can’t cover every moment. So instead, choose several key moments of the story to dramatize in detail. It’s like pictures in a photo album. The album might be labeled Christmas 2017, but it doesn’t have pictures of every single moment of how you celebrated the holiday. There might be ten photos that, taken together, create a collage that communicates what the overall experience was like. At a guess, you might have anywhere from three to five scenes like that in a short story written in this manner.
Point of View
Generally Speaking: Stay in the same person/point of view for a short story. Point of view shifts within a scene break the illusion of reality for readers. While it’s of course possible to alternate point of view in a short story, such back-and-forth shifts tend to be jarring in a short piece.
I Heart You: At the heart of a story should lie a strong emotional core. This emotional core is what connects an audience to a story; it’s what makes a story matter to them – and writers neglect this all the time (and often leave it out entirely). For short fiction include an important emotional relationship between two characters and use this relationship as a foundation upon which your story rests. The emotional core doesn’t have to be between two people. In Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea the emotional core is right there in the title. Can the fisherman still do his job – can he still master the sea – or is he too old and weak? The man’s struggle to catch a swordfish and bring it back to land is only the surface action. The story is the emotional core: the man’s physical, mental, and emotional struggle against mortality and Time itself.
Hopefully you’ve got a few new tools, or at least a different perspective, on writing short fiction. Now go out there and write short fiction that will knock readers on their asses and make them say, “Damn! Now that was a story!”
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
My latest story collection Dark and Distant Voices is now available in both print and eBook editions. Here’s what people have been saying about the book:
"Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre tells us. "Especially the one we see in the mirror," implicitly says Tim Waggoner. Both give us the theme of Waggoner's splendid Dark and Distant Voices. Our children we don't quite recognize, colleagues not all that collegial, ghosts who silently speak the Truth ... They're all here and more in Waggoner's brilliant story collection. – Mort Castle
"This is every card in the horror deck, played by someone who knows the game better than most of us ever will." – Stephen Graham Jones
Tim Waggoner's Dark and Distant Voices is quite the short story collection. Bizarre, weird, and utterly intriguing, the stories found here will get under your skin. – Horror Novel Reviews
And now that you’re dying to get the book, here’s some Amazon linkage: