Back at a Christmas party a few months ago I was asked:
“How do you make sure your short stories are satisfying? I’ve tried to read some short stories in the past but lots of them didn’t deliver.”
There are a couple of key things to remember here. The first is that a short story is not a chapter, and that a lot of a short fiction is unsatisfying because it reads like chapters from a longer work. In particular, writers who have primarily written (or read) longer works in the past (e.g. novels) can easily produce short stories that read like chapters, because they treat a 2,000 word short story like they would treat a 2,000 word section of novel. These pieces are both the same length but there purpose is very different: a chapter needs to operate as a puzzle piece in a much larger work, and a short story functions as the entire work.
Recommendations for avoiding your story reading like a chapter:
- Read lots of short stories, including plenty by writers who are known for their shorter works, not just novelists who have produced some short stories on the side.
- Begin with an estimated word count in mind. Although the finished story might run longer or shorter than your estimate, this helps to clarify what sort of fiction you’re writing. If you expect the story to run more than about 7,500 words you’re edging up into novelette territory, and more than about 17,500 words is becoming a novella. If you know that the overall story in your head is sizable but you’re only planning to write a portion of it, be careful that this is very likely to read like an (unsatisfying) portion of a longer work.
“But Ephiny,” I hear some of you cry, “what about those short story writers who write several short stories in the same universe?” To which I would say: yes, they’re all in the same universe, but if they’re good writers then each of those stories should be completely self-contained. No-one should have to have read any of the other stories to be able to appreciate an individual piece. It’s important to distinguish between sharing the same setting and sharing the same story.
That brings us to the next key point: satisfying short fiction will tie up its main storyline. The shorter the story is, the more of the piece should be dedicated to this main storyline, as there’s less room for any kind of deviation. The storyline could be a physical one, which is usually more obvious, or a mental one, or both. For example:
- My story ‘Little Freedoms’ literally starts and ends at the start and end of a competition (a physical storyline). Its storyline (or question) that is raised almost immediately is: “What will happen in the competition?” and when that storyline is fulfilled, the story ends.
- ‘The Light Princess‘ centers around the main character searching for belonging, which – in the story – is both a physical place and an emotional feeling (both a physical and mental storyline). The story ends by her finding this place and feeling of belonging.
- ‘In the Beginning, All Our Hands Are Cold‘ begins close to when the main character receives her own hands, and ends when she loses them again.
- ‘Strange Dancemates‘ begins when the monsters appear to our main character, and ends when they’ve all disappeared.
You get the idea.
Recommendations for tying up the main storyline:
- Know the very beginning and very end of your story before you start writing, and – crucially – how the end of your story resolves the main storyline you’ve set up at the start. (This doesn’t have to stop you from discovering the middle of the story as you’re writing.)
- Start your story as late as possible, and end it as soon as possible, while still clearly posing and resolving the main storyline (question) of the piece. This will help to keep your story focused, grab your readers’ attention, and hammer home the end of the storyline, all of which will contribute to the story feeling more satisfying.