Sage advice to help you master the art form
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Short stories are perhaps the best available tool to practice your craft as a writer.
Many inexperienced writers, myself included, tend to rush into novels without the requisite chops to ultimately pull it off.
We get bogged down in the quagmire of this big, amorphous blob and eventually, after a great struggle, we get sucked under and drown.
I can?t tell you how many novels I?ve started and never finished. Novels that I wasn?t ready to tackle. Novels that I got halfway through and realized I had no business writing. Or even attempting to write.
So, I got back to basics. I started writing a short story. And then another one, and another one and soon I found myself with tons of momentum. I was having fun, entertaining myself, and every so often, writing something I was pretty proud of.
And best of all? They were finished. I completed the stories. The task was done. I wasn?t stuck banging my head against the wall of an incomplete and suddenly directionless manuscript with tens of thousands of words.
It was, as they say, a light-bulb moment for me. I realized I had skipped a step, and a crucial one at that, in my development as a writer. It has helped develop and improve my storytelling chops in innumerable ways.
But don?t let the name fool you. Writing a short story ain?t easy. In many ways, it?s the hardest kind of story to write. It?s a delicate act. It is an art form that takes poise and grace to pull it off and leave a real impression in the reader?s mind.
While I?ve published a collection of short horror stories, I am by no means an expert. I still have so much to learn and improve upon.
So, here are five pieces of sage advice from true experts, much more qualified than I, to help you get better and master the art form.
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?Any story that?s going to be any good is usually going to change,? ? Alice Munro
Winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature who specializes almost exclusively in short stories, Alice Munro, recommends embracing change.
You need to get comfortable not knowing exactly where you?re going. The story you set out to write at the beginning might be completely different from the one you end up with when you reach the end.
And that?s a good thing ? a great thing.
The creative process is messy and ever-evolving. You?ll discover things about your story and characters along the way that you?d never have guessed by outlining and meticulously plotting things out.
Embracing change allows the happy accidents you run into while writing to turn your ordinary story into a magical one that surprises and inspires readers.
This is not to say that outlining is bad. It can be super useful. But if you write an outline, plot your story, and then just write it exactly the way you drew it up without being surprised or inspired to change some things along the way?I?m going to bet it won?t be very good. It certainly won?t surprise or inspire your readers.
I once heard someone liken writing a story to taking a great road trip. You want to plan out the major stops along the way, but you don?t want to plan the exact route and time spent between the stops.
You want to allow some room for improvisation and discovery along the way so that you can experience those serendipitous encounters that ultimately lead to the best moments.
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Begin at the end
?Imagine your short story as the last chapter of a novel,? ? Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman says a good short story is, ?like a magic trick?it?s that thing where somebody shows you that their hands are empty and then they cover it. And then when they reveal it again, there?s a rose there.?
What you want in a really good short story, is for the reader to really feel like your characters have existed for a long time before the beginning point of your story.
One of Gaiman?s best tips for writing a great short story comes from advice he received from one of his favorite short story writers, Roger Zelazny. Gaiman explains that he asked Zelazny for advice on short stories because he did it better than anyone he knew and this was Zelazny?s answer:
You know, really, all of my best short stories are the last chapter of a novel I didn?t write.
According to Gaiman, what you want in a really good short story, is for the reader to really feel like your characters have existing for a long time before the beginning point of your story.
You don?t want them to feel like the characters were just made up for the express purpose of the story. You want them to feel that they?ve felt and experienced things that have taken them to this point in their lives.
That is how you deliver authentic and meaningful experiences to your readers when telling a short story. That?s the magic trick. They know the rose was there the whole time, but they?re still amazed at the beauty and efficiency of the feat you?ve pulled off right in front of them.
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Go ahead, make the plot obvious
?I put the whole plot on the first page,? ? Toni Morrison
I have a lot of ?favorites? when it comes to writing tips and tricks. But this one from Toni Morrison is the piece of advice I find to be the most comforting.
I?m always worried about being too straightforward or that I need to ?trick? my readers more or that I?m writing something they?ve seen before.
But Toni Morrison is comfortable making the plot obvious for her readers because she knows she is going to tell them a story they recognize and yet still get immense satisfaction from it.
She likens telling a story to a jazz melody. She doesn?t necessarily rely on complexity or intricate plot twists to satisfy readers. Rather, she relies on the satisfaction of familiar techniques that are executed to perfection and with a graceful ease that makes readers happy.
Simple stories, like music or food, that are executed well and with care and attention to detail can blow their more complex counterparts out of the water every single time.
It doesn?t have to be difficult to understand or shrouded in mystery. A Shyamalan twist is not required to wow your readers. What is required is authenticity, craftsmanship, and respect for your audience. That is what leaves them satisfied and coming back for more.
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Be cruel, mean, unfair ? so that we can give a damn
?Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them,? ? Kurt Vonnegut
This is perhaps one of the easiest and most common mistakes new writers make. It is an easy trap to fall into. You love your characters and you want your readers to love them too.
So, you just kind of have them going through life without facing any real hardship or challenges.
That is the kiss of death for a writer: a bored reader who hates your characters.
But the problem is, when awful things don?t happen, stories (even short stories) tend to be agonizingly slow and boring. The characters feel too perfect ? not flawed like real human beings (the kind of people we can and want to relate to in stories).
Nothing of any real note happens to them, or they succeed too often, and so we end up developing a disdain and sometimes even outright hatred for them.
That is the kiss of death for a writer: a bored reader who hates your characters.
They?ll probably never read your work again.
You need to put your characters through the wringer, doesn?t matter if it’s mental or physical but there should be tension in every scene.
Make the stakes clear, make them high, and make them costly for your characters.
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Work your ass off and write like there?s no tomorrow
?Write one short story a week?at the end of the year, you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones,? ? Ray Bradbury
This is a popular piece of advice from a prolific writer, Ray Bradbury, but it is perhaps my favorite for getting better at short stories or for getting better at anything for that matter.
There?s a reason you see this quote pop up over and over again in articles and stories about mastering the short story.
Practice, and lots of it, is the only way to improve your skills and hone your craft.
I like to think of it as taking a bunch of shots with a basketball in a row or kicking a soccer ball towards the goal.
Eventually, if you keep trying, something will go in and along the way you?ll refine your form. You?ll learn from mistakes. They?ll help you make adjustments to get rid of the things you are doing wrong and to reinforce the things you are doing right so that you can repeat the successes on a more consistent basis.
And that is the name of the game, developing consistency and sustained success.
Get my FREE book, The Tiny Book of Writing Reminders, to help recalibrate your mind and get back to doing what you were meant to do.