Guest Post: The Art of Short Story Writing

05 November 2012

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Hello everyone! When I first got an e-mail from Elizabeth asking if I'd be willing to guest post on Literary Lane, it left me feeling highly thrilled and honoured by the prospect, not to mention a tiny winy bit nervous, having never guest-posted before. But, here I am, and I shall do my best! Today I am going to talk about short-story writing and about what a great writing medium it is, if only we give it a chance... along with a tad bit of advice on how to go about writing one! I may take detours and almost certainly will make this post long (which is ironic, considering it is about short stories!) But I promise to try and make it interesting. So... pretty-please... try not to fall asleep, folks, agreed? Agreed!

Short story writing! Why do some of us shy away from this art of writing? First let me say this. There is something wonderful about the space and freedom of expressing oneself in the medium of novel-writing. In it, we find a breadth and height for flowery words, brilliant diamonds of description, dialogues that keep us riveted for pages on end, and the strength of good story narrative. When writing a story of 50,000 words or more, we have the opportunity to delve into our story-line with ease and have plenty of space to get know our characters, dwell on scenes and enjoy description in detail. These are only some of the many reasons why we, novel writers, choose to write novels and love it so. Most of us may not really have anything against short-stories, but we tend to cordially distance ourselves from the possibility of writing one of our own with success and enjoyment. It appears challenging, restrictive and definitely nothing as rewarding as writing a novel! 

For most of my writing years I held this notion, as I focused intently on writing in my historical fiction novel, The Crown of Life. I really couldn't see how penning short stories could be any fun or even remotely helpful to one's writing skills. This year, however, my opinion of short stories changed drastically when through a literary contest my local library was hosting, The Redlitzer, I challenged myself to write my first ever short story of 3,755 words. This story, A Love that Never Fails, has since then been published in a special edition anthology with other local writers. Of course, that has been such an exciting highlight of my year, one that I am deeply thankful to God for! But perhaps more than the excitement of getting something published has been the experience and knowledge I gleaned throughout that time. In ways I never would have previously thought, I have learnt to appreciate the benefits of short-story writing. Also, through the process of writing one myself I have discovered and learnt so much about writing in general that I now find applicable to the process and skills that writing a full-length novel demands. 

From observation, I have often noticed how with young writers, myself included, our first literary works tend to be major ones (whether we'd planned it so at first or not)--complicated novels with huge character casts, many sub-plots and twists, or even a series of novels or a trilogy. Accompanied with our projects, is the excitement and vision for the task. And I say hurrah to that! It is wonderful if we challenge ourselves and undertake works of great depth, length and intensity. Yet, somewhere near the middle of our novels, we will be sure to find ourselves facing some mountain-sized challenges and unexpected hurdles. The problem is, a lot of us often don't have the writing maturity in taking on such big-sized, multi-layered tales through the many hurdles that are before us, do the story justice and bring it to completion. The discipline of Beginning, Middle, and End is just not in us. And when confronted with the face-to-face reality of bringing a good story idea through the entanglements of plot, characterization and goodness knows what to its end, we often either panic or simply give up on the story to try some other one. Or at least we toy with that idea, feeling all the while guilty and daunted by the fact that we are unable to go on... to continue... to finish our novels.

This may not apply to everyone, yet I personally believe that short-story writing can help us with these above problems. It can help us develop a stronger, and more focused writing skill and maturity that we may be able to carry onto our novel writing later on. Short stories are short.... so I will not pretend that authoring one can sound difficult and restricting. You will be narrowed in by a limited word-count of probably no more than 3,000 or 4,000 words, and the final result will not be as rewarding as finishing a novel would be. But, depressing as this may sound, it is a great medium of writing as well! It has immense benefits for anyone who is struggling with the ins and outs of story-structure and writing. One important benefit of a short story is that the plot has no need of being overly extensive or complicated. For a reader it will be quick to read and won't take up their time or energy. For you, the author, it will not demand of you the intensity of work that writing a novel requires. Writing a short story has helped me to see what is really important to the story-line and what is unnecessary that can be chopped away (oh, the horrors! but I had not intended on ranting about editing so soon...). It has helped me develop on the skill to proclaim the theme more succinctly and powerfully than one may from a novel as a young writer impaired by complicated plot and character twists and turns and all that. You see, it can be interestingly easy to begin a story well, but when proceeding, not so easy to write a solid and captivating middle and great ending. That's all due to a novel's largeness and the entanglement of tying out all the threads of a tale to its end of course. A short story story can help us with all that!

Up to now I have shared in some length the benefits of short-story writing. But the question lingers, how does one write a good short story? I am not expert--goodness, what a thought! But I will share what little I learnt, with the hope that it might prove of some help to you too. There are some important elements of a short-story... well in any story in fact... but we are right now dealing with short ones. Those elements have to do with the proper structure of a beginning/start, a middle and an end.

The Start - What usually hooks us immediately onto any story is the strength of the first line... the first paragraph... the first page. It has to be so gripping that we want to read more. It ought to be amusing, quirky, eye-catching or just plain original and unique, like C.S. Lewis' "There once was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it".  This is especially true with short stories as we don't have much time like we do in a novel to settle into the mood of a story. We can't afford to have our readers uninterested. If you have not gained the attention of the readers by the end of the first paragraph, it will be hard to get them interested at all in the story. Transport your readers right into the thick of things... of danger and emotion or drama or sentiment. Let them root for the main character at once and be interested in them and see the world through their eyes. Do not bother about detailing unnecessary facts about the characters, the situation, the landscape, circumstance etc... which otherwise might be thought important to document in a novel. Strip them down to the barest and key facts.

Characters- Unlike in a novel where you have space to expand and work on different major and minor characters, developing them and making them grow, in a short story you have to be fast-paced. You will find yourself with little time to delve into many characters. So keep them few, 2 or 3 being preferably the most. You can have background characters of course, but they really should be what they are... in the background. Try to focus on one or two characters, work on developing them within the limited word-count you may have, and allow them to star. Characterization should otherwise be more or less the same as novel-writing; only you have to be brisk in your writing, without giving the impression of haste or that you rushed the story in the reader's mind.

Plot - It is preferable if you create a simple out-line or blurb or general direction for your short story as you write. But this indeed may be a personal preference, and you may find that it hinders instead of helps you. However, keep in mind not to get lost in the story's plot. Instead, you guide it along as inspiration comes: because it is after all a story of concise length. One mistake I made while writing my own short story, A Love that Never Fails, was to squeeze many scenes and many characters into the space of a 3000 word story... not a good idea! When you try and put a bit too much into the plot line, it will prevent you from elaborating more on your characters. 

A Theme - As you progress in the story, you may find yourself trying to figure out the theme of your story (or you may have known it from the beginning). A story must have purpose and theme in my opinion or else it falls flat like a pancake. Short-stories are perfect ground for proclaiming a message... even more than in a novel. As Christians, we have a wonderful opportunity through short story writing to impart lessons and themes of faith and the Truth of God's Word into them, whether obviously so or more subtly depending on your audience and your personal preference. As you write, try to hone in on that purpose and theme quietly, let it develop and shine, without letting the reader be aware of what you are doing. Just keep to that theme with assurance and certainty, even if some will try to undermine or deter you from proclaiming the message through the story. Don't get discouraged. There will always be those who will appreciate the message of your story, and may even be blessed or changed by it. Here is a quote by author Jenny Freitag that goes down well with these thoughts: "Whenever you want to tell a truth, wrap it up in fiction. People take it better that way and the medicine goes down almost before they know it." - Jennifer Freitag

The Middle - From personal experience I know it can be easy to get bogged down when one comes to the middle of the story. It is easy to unintentionally make the plot sag or not give the story as much intense focus as the beginning and end. I do not have much to say except strive to keep the tension, the strength of character and quality and interest up. You are reaching for the climax. In the middle, you will be in the midst of the tale, you are developing the characters, reaching for the climax of the conflict and bringing in scenes to exemplify them. Try not to spread yourself out a lot and just enjoy this more arduous part of the story :).

The End - Here is the tying up of all the threads! You may not have the answers for all the questions in the story, there may be cliff hangers, but you must at least bring a resolution to the conflict (negative or positive). That conflict need not end in a way expected. I find it a delightful thing when a story ends in a unexpected way. So if you can bring about a twist in the tale, a unique or new one, non-cliche or cliche-ridden but written well that catches the reader unaware, I say, hurrah for you!!

Editing - I cannot emphasize the importance of editing enough! It is perhaps the sorest trial of a writer, but so very vital if you want your story to be any good. While I mentioned the need of keeping a fast pace in the story, I found it immensely helpful for inspiration to write in more detail and description and later cut out huge chunks as I edited. So this may help you too. When you're editing a short story, there is often the temptation of thinking that your story will be better with all those little bits of information and details and scenes. However, when taken as a whole, succinctness and a brisk pace (which at times demands sacrificing dearly beloved sentences!) will enhance your story, make it more coherent, structured and neatly-packed, without those dangling bits of beautiful words that have no bearing on the tale as a whole. Be ruthless with editing unneeded words, sentences and even paragraphs if need be, especially if you are tight on word-count. Though it will feel like a part of you is being torn apart, you will eventually be grateful that you were a bit heartless and took these drastic measures to make your short story a truly enjoyable one.

Some other elements - That fact that we need to have our stories short, does not eliminate the need for snippets of description here and there or a moment's pause for beautiful prose. But keep them brief and entwined within the story, like splashes of colour here and there. It will make them stand out all the more with beauty and vividness and really lend a canvas of imagination to your story. What about when inspiration runs out in the thick of things, when you are feeling overwhelmed with fitting all your flighty ideas into this little pack of words? Allow yourself to be inspired by beautiful music, a book you read,  a photo you saw, a movie you watched or a YouTube you streamed online so that it not only inspires you, but also affects the writing of your short story itself. In the Walt Disney movie, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the scene where the four Pevensie kids say goodbye to their mother in the London station inspired me greatly as I wrote A Love that Never Fails. So did the Narnia soundtracks. This Pinterest image, and this and this carved images in my mind as I wrote my short story in ways I will never be able to comprehend effectively. They gave me scenes to go by, a mood of the time, the people, historical context.... the list goes on and on. Lastly, this may sound clich√©, but it is not... Prayer is such an important element in all that we do and that includes writing. Jesus said, "Without Me, you can do nothing." Oh, how true this is... without Him, nothing we do will have any lasting or eternal worth. Through Him we live, and move and have our being. So, when you come to write a short story remember to pray and ask the Great Author to aid and help you in what you write. He really does answer, you know!

Short story writing is a wonderful opportunity to develop your literary muscles and learn to focus on a story's structure. It also has its other benefits (contests, the lack of complexity etc...). Yet, perhaps the best part of short-story writing, is the writing of the story itself. Writing short-stories is like allowing oneself to take one beautiful peek at a scene from a character's life, a bird's eye-view of unfolding events and emotions. It is so hard to explain, but short stories can have such a delightful charm; they are a wonderful way to pen in a few hundred or thousand words what would otherwise take chapters and chapters to write. Short story writing is recording a beautiful tale through the eyes of a small canvas of tiny bright gems of scarlet and gold. Gems of words. So,  writing short stories is an art. And though novel-writing will always be my first literary love, I can now happily say that I have found a good friend in the scribbling a short story.
What about you?

Joy is a young daughter of the King, a needy sinner saved by His Amazing Grace. The greatest goal of her life is to love and glorify her Heavenly Father, as He guides her on the path of life. Joy is home-educated by her dear parents, and has three amazing sisters who're her closest friends. She resides in a sunny little corner of Queensland, Australia, which is as lovely as it sounds. Imagination is her favourite cup-of-tea, a world which she traverses daily. Joy wars with words through her pen (and naturally the laptop!) and scribbles stories, plays the violin, sings with her heart, photographs and draws God’s Creation as she sees it, and is an avid lover of books. She also keeps a blog, Fullness of Joy, where she scribbles about faith, writing, music, her family, raindrops on roses and of things in between.

6 epistles:

  1. I was amazed to read so many of my thoughts and feelings about writing novels and short stories put so well by you, Miss Joy! You understand why many of us young writers prefer novels, and so you're able to write a very helpful post on how we can write short stories. I've been wanting to try my hand on short stories, but didn't know if I could do it; I feel their beauty, but I wasn't sure how to write it. You've definitely given me a start! What short story authors have inspired you? Thank you and God bless.

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  2. Kelsey, thank you so much for your sweet comment! I am glad you found my post helpful and it has encouraged you to try writing a short story :). I must admit I felt a bit hesitant in my advice because I am just a beginner and I've only written one short story so far! But it HAS been a great experience as I shared in this post. I did not have an inkling of how to write a short story either when I decided to join the competition, but I learnt through trial and error and by just writing! And the Lord taught me too. My family helped me immensely with ideas and through the painful trial of editing, as well as a close writing-friend of mine :D. Later, I got the help and instruction of published authors during the workshops who helped me in making the short-story ready for publication. Much of what I've shared in this post, I learnt and realized only after attending the workshops.

    To be perfectly honest, as far back as I can remember I cannot recall reading any short stories save Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, but these were part of one great story so it was not strictly short. At the workshops, I was given a short-story to read called, 'The Happy Prince', and though it was quite nice it really was not my cup-of-tea (that probably had something to do with the fact that the author was Oscar Wilde.) Those authors who have inspired me are writers who wrote big-sized books and novels (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd C. Douglas, Rosemary Sutcliff, Patricia St. John, Dickens, Bunyan etc...) and my favourite novels are all mostly fat ;).

    Well, you can never know if you'll be good at short-story writing unless you try it out. I concur short-story writing would not be my personal first choice as a writing medium, as succinctness has never been a strong point for me! But, even though I love to ramble and talk and describe and take my time (as is evident by this post and this comment!) I did write a successful short story, with God's help. And if I did, I am sure you can too!

    God bless you too!
    Joy @ joy-live4jesus.blogspot.com

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  3. Oh, thank you, Miss Joy! I've wanted to write short stories, but I was scared and intimidated to do so! But I believe I shall try writing them some time, because you have assured me that us writers CAN write something small and beautiful. Thank you so much for your helpful post; it was a blessing!

    A fellow writer,
    Patience

    prc(at)calicoacres(dot)com

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  4. That was beautiful, Joy. Very precise and well- written. You expressed the beauty and pleasure of short story writing so well. :) I also really enjoy writing short stories although I haven't done so in awhile. You are inspiring me to go scribble down another one. Thank you for your delightful post, dear. :) It. was. excellent.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Annie. I am glad you liked the post, and thank you so much for stopping by to comment and for your encouragement :). 'Tis so sweet of you!

      I knew you wrote a short story once, but I did not know you wrote more than one. So, actually, you've outdone me there ;). You'll have to tell me more about your others in our next e-mail (I promise to reply to yours soon!).

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  5. You're welcome, Patience! I am glad you found this post helpful and a blessing. You know, with me too, until I 'found' myself writing one (because really, I think it Providentially 'happened' rather than it being my personal choice)I was just as scared about trying my hands on short stories. And I did not find it easy, but in some ways it isn't so very much harder than writing a novel when one thinks about it and tries it out :). So yes, don't be afraid to try it out! Thank you for your sweet comment!

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