The secrets to writing successful short stories

Back in 2002, an author you may have heard of by the name of Stephen King said that “there are few pleasures so excellent as sitting in my favorite chair on a cold night with a hot cup of tea, listening to the wind outside and reading a good story which I can complete in a single sitting.”

Yes, he spelt it “favorite” because he’s American. But the main thing you should have taken out of that is that short stories are not simply the poor cousins to novels. In fact, they can often be superior.

A short story provides the basic elements of story and sends the reader on a journey. The short story demands more of the reader, and the reader will be happy to be more involved, and do some of the imaginative work themselves.

Our lives keep us on the run. But readers are discovering that they can enjoy a complete reading experience in the time it takes to have a coffee. Even those who are time poor can enjoy a fully realised “time out” with a short story.

And so we asked Cathie Tasker – creator of our popular online course Short Story Essentials – to answer a few questions about these pint-sized parables.

What exactly is a short story?
“A short story is a joy to read, partly because the reader meets the author halfway, and fills in their experience with their own imagination and experience. Readers of short stories are generally more active readers, more willing to immerse themselves into the world that you will create. Reading a short story is a real case of ‘less is more'.

“But a short story is not a novel. It’s a different art form.

“Common lengths of ‘short stories':

  • Micro fiction – up to 100 words
  • Flash fiction – under 1000 words
  • The conventional short story – the most common length for a short story is 2000-4000 words, and we recommended keeping your stories under 5000 words, as that's the most publishable length.
  • Up to 7000 words is still a short story but it's getting a little long for today's tastes.
  • Novelette – 7500 to 20,000 words
  • Novella – 20,000 to 40,000 words
  • Over 50,000 words you have written a novel.”

It seems that the short story has made a renaissance lately – with more short story anthologies and competitions than ever before. Why do you think this is?
“Today readers want a faster, more intense experience and short stories are ideally suited to offer this satisfaction. Readers want the satisfaction of consuming a well crafted story, but don’t always have time to read a novel. They don’t want to wait to feel that emotional satisfaction from reading because they want an instant experience and the short story delivers quickly. And they find short stories rewarding. Publishers are always alert to what readers want, so you can expect to see more short stories being published.

“Like any literary form, the short story keeps developing. Writers are getting better and better, and readers reap the benefit. We are lucky to live in a time where there is so much great writing available to us.”

How does a short story differ in terms of writing techniques or style compared to a novel?
“Writing a short story is NOT the same as writing a novel.

“Sure, a short story is shorter, and it’s in prose, but it is a different art form. The short story is closer to poetry than to a novel, because so much of the meaning in the work is left up to the reader to interpret.

“These stories will generally start as close to the climax as possible. The author will try to evoke emotions in the reader, and will most likely employ the five senses. It’s likely that the reader will be fleshing out the story in their minds and the readers of short stories welcome the chance to read ‘between the lines’. So it’s a good idea for the author to use universal themes and familiar contexts (settings and characters), which will make the reader’s task easier.

“A short story is likely to have a clearer message than a novel – it’s more likely to have a single theme and fewer characters. The plot will be strongly related to the theme, and the emotional impact on the reader may be stronger. The short story will have a clarity and drama that may not be in the novel.”

Why should people who are usually focused on writing novels consider writing short stories?
“The best reason for writing a short story is to polish your voice, or test your writing in a genre new to you – the short story allows you to practise the whole writing process, from conception to polishing and completion. Most people think of writing as the first draft, but the real work for real writers happens in the later stages with the structural edit, line edit and proofreading.

“You can quickly evaluate whether you might want to change genres, or to create a character who may be a protagonist for a novel – to simply stretch your writing skills.

“Yet another reason is to explore your characters for your novel – explore how they might behave in different situations and explore the essence of their character or their motivation by writing a short story rather than a character profile. I think this can be a part of developing the characters or the character’s backstory for a novel.

“Getting deeper into the characters and plot will be great development for the novel, and you can probably use the short story to promote the novel. The idea is to keep the characters before the reader and offer a celebration of character – and this works as great marketing. The readership benefits because that’s just what they want. More stories.”

What are some of the biggest pitfalls for writers who tackle short stories?
“Authors new to the short story form tend to want to include the same level of detail found in a novel. But a short story is more evocative than a novel – the author is more likely to work with nuances and clues to the action rather than spelling out the themes, plot and characterisation.

“It’s easy to stray from the 3-act structure, but writing short stories will help you learn how to make that structure work for you. It will strengthen your writing and clarity of thought.

“‘A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion – than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.' 
– Eudora Welty”

What will people get out of doing your Short Story Essentials course?
“The really great thing about writing a short story is that writers can have the complete writing experience in a short time — from conception, to writing, editing and finishing the work. And submission of course.

“Learning more about any aspect of writing is always ‘a good thing’ and the course focuses on writing fiction in prose. We show you how to hone your craft and learn how to create tightly constructed, well-polished prose. You’ll learn a lot about style and structure, creating your own narrative voice, and some ideas for creating characters. We also go into detail about how to do complete a structural edit.

“Of course, we also work with the unique features of a short story and the importance of emotion and intellect working together to create a response in the reader.”

In the course, students are able to submit their own short story and they'll get feedback from you on it. What kind of comments can they expect?
“We’ll look at the story structure and comment on the pacing, characterisation and other aspects of structural editing. We’ll comment on the style and outline which areas you need to work on most. We’ll help you focus on the essentials of your story’s plot.

“We’ll help you discover the real starting point of your story. Most new writers have to feel their way into the voice for the story, and often have beginnings which are too long.”

Finally, what things above all else should writers remember when writing a short story?
“The tight focus on a detail can illuminate the world, and how we live in it, and leave the reader changed or enlightened by the experience. The reader likes to carry the mood of the story with them.

“The best short stories feature a shattering moment at the heart of the story.

“Stylistically, everything needs to work on more than one level — from the word choices to the plotting. Short story readers like to work with nuances and wants to work hard and do some of the imaginative work.

“Trust the 3-act structure. A short story provides the basic elements of story and sends the reader on a journey. The short story reader is often more involved, so less is more.”

Eager to write your own short stories? Explore everything you need to know about characters, plots, pacing and more with our practical Short Story Essentials course. You'll build a short story piece by piece and receive expert feedback from Cathie Tasker herself!

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