I recently posted a new YouTube video called, “Writing short fiction that occurs over long periods of time & making stories feel epic”.
Here’s the transcript:
Hi everyone. I’m Ephiny Gale. Today, by request, I’m going to be talking about writing short fiction that occurs over a long period of time, and making your short fiction feel epic.
I got a great comment on one of my earlier videos that said: “If I could make a request for a future video, please. In my stories I struggle with a sense of pace/time. When I read certain stories in pro magazines, some of them feel epic yet only reach 3k in total. Any tips on how to achieve this? My stories feel like extended scenes occurring over days or even a week, rather than years or lifetimes. I really struggle with this: keeping it short, yet having it feel large in scope.”
Thanks very much for the interesting comment. This topic isn’t something that I’ve given a lot of thought to in the past, so I enjoyed ruminating over it in preparation for this video. A couple of my stories that have won or been finalists for awards over the past couple of years have occurred over the span of a decade or a lifetime, so I must be doing something right in that area. I’ll do my best to offer some useful suggestions.
Firstly, let’s talk about a story feeling epic or large in scope, because I think that can happen separately to a story occurring over years or lifetimes. You can have a story that only occurs over a day or a week, but still feels epic because of its implications. If the events of your story significantly change things for a city or a country or a world or a universe, then that has a good chance of feeling epic to readers because something big – or multiple somethings – has just shifted for a lot of people.
For example, if I read a story about the world ending over the course of a few days, then I’m going to feel like that’s pretty epic. It’s a huge change on an epic scale. It’s epic-ness isn’t diminished because it occurs over a short period of time.
That’s an extreme example, but for instance, something like a political regime change or the power suddenly going off for an entire country are things that can happen over a pretty short period of time, but still feel epic because of the amount of people affected. So if you didn’t want to make your story feel epic due to duration, you could make it feel epic because of its significance to the on-page world instead.
It’s also worth noting here that something can occur over a very long period of time without necessarily feeling epic. A story that covers three generations of family, but where nothing of significance happens, probably won’t feel epic to readers. Duration in and of itself does not give a story that epic feel.
But I think the core of the request here is more about how to write stories that occur over those long periods of time: years or lifetimes, or at least more than a week. And this was something that I struggled with briefly when I first started to write short stories to sell for publication. One of my first stories around that time was just a single scene. It wasn’t terrible, and it was edited and repurposed later to be part of a larger piece that did sell, but in and of itself it was more edging towards being a short story rather than being a whole and independent story in and of itself. It didn’t sell as just that single scene.
I think a lot of us initially struggle with this because the vast majority of storytelling that we’re exposed to is a series of single dramatic scenes. By this I mean: a scene that occurs more or less in real time, more or less in the one location, where the characters walk around and Sally talks to Bob and Bob ties his shoelace etc. etc… This is the storytelling that we get from TV and movies and video games and from most novels as well. Of course, there are some exceptions, but I think you get the idea. We’re trained that a scene after a scene after a scene makes a story, and that these scenes usually occur relatively soon after one another as well.
Absolutely, you CAN write your short fiction like this and I’ve done so for several of my stories, but thinking that it’s a REQUIREMENT really hamstrings your ability to write a variety of short fiction, especially short fiction that occurs over a long period of time.
So let’s talk about both options: let’s talk about writing long periods of time with a series of dramatic scenes, and then let’s talk about something entirely different. And then we’ll cover more general tips and planning.
If you’re writing a short story through a series of dramatic scenes (and by dramatic I don’t mean exaggerated or emotional, I mean dramatized, like you could see them being played out on your TV) and you want that story to occur over a reasonably long period of time, then at least some of your scenes are going to have significant time jumps between them.
If you wanted to practice this, you could simply take three pieces of notebook paper and label them with different years, like 2031, 2032, and 2033, and write a short scene that occurs for each of those years on the appropriate page. For this exercise you would think of a story that could develop over the course of three years, where we would get brief glimpses into the world and the characters each time that we would visit them annually, and what could unfold over that time. Make sure that you’ve got at least one thread running throughout all of the scenes, so that you get an interconnected story rather than a series of events.
Any time jumps don’t necessarily have to be evenly spaced. If you’ve got seven scenes in your story, then the first three might be quite close together in time, and then there might be six months between scene three and four, and there might be a year between scene four and five, and then the last three scenes might be quite close together in time again. It’s completely up to you and what works best for the story that you’re trying to tell.
So that’s storytelling with dramatic scenes. What’s the alternative? Well, the alternative is something that we can do in prose that we can’t do on stage or screen, and that’s basically summarizing what happened over a period of time. As an example, I’m going to be using a paragraph from my story “In The Beginning, All Our Hands Are Cold“, which won the 2018 Best of the Net award, so if you’d like to read that and you haven’t, pause this video now, click the link in the description – it’s not very long, I promise.
This is a paragraph from the middle of that story: “Fiona grows into the body that goes with her hands, which is the body of a handsome six-foot young man. As a child, all she wanted was to be able to lift up her younger siblings, and now she can lift almost anyone. Fiona mostly goes by Finn these days. Sally and Finn dated for a while, but Finn wanted five kids, so a while wasn’t that long. Finn builds Sally’s first house and marries a nice girl with magenta nail polish. They go dancing every week, so he gets to lift her all the time, and you should see the way she looks at him.”
So you can see that although that’s only one paragraph, we wouldn’t be able to show that on TV in a single scene. If we wanted to dramatise it we’d have to break it down into several scenes, such as:
– Fiona as a young girl, trying to lift her younger siblings and struggling.
– A montage of Fiona with her new hands, growing into the body of a six-foot young man, and becoming more successful at lifting her siblings and others.
– Sally and Finn dating, where we learn that Fiona usually goes by Finn from here on out.
– Sally and Finn breaking up because finn wants a ton of kids and Sally doesn’t.
– Sally buying a plot of land.
– Finn building a house on sally’s plot of land.
– Finn marrying the girl with magenta nail polish.
– Finn dancing with the girl he married and lifting her into the air.
If we wanted to show that paragraph as individual scenes they would take up a lot more time and space, regardless of whether they were scenes in a TV show or as part of some prose. If I dramatised the entire story it would probably be the length of a novel rather than a slim short story. But “In The Beginning, All Our Hands Are Cold” doesn’t need sixty thousand words to tell its story; a couple of thousand words is just fine, thanks to the magic of summarising events that occur over long periods of time.
You certainly don’t have to do this for every story, and of course you can have stories that are a mix of dramatised scenes and summaries, but it’s a very useful tool to have in your writer’s toolkit regardless of the ratio of dramatic scenes versus summaries in your story.
Here are some general tips for writing stories that occur over long periods of time:
Before you start writing, decide in advance roughly how much time your story is going to span. Is it a few months, a decade, a lifetime, multiple lifetimes? If you know this before you start writing it’s a lot easier to structure the pieces of your story so that they occur over that duration, rather than defaulting back to one hour or one day after one another.
It’s even better when you know at approximately what ages or milestones the different events in your story are going to happen. So for example: at 15 our protagonist moves to Paris, and then at 25 she boards a starship. Or: the witches had lived in the forest for a hundred years when an earthquake tore apart their village.
There are lots of ways to indicate to your readers that time has passed. You can literally say, “One year later…” You can say, “When Alex was 18…” You can set up that a comet only comes around every 50 years, and in your first scene that comet is five years away, so that in your second scene when characters are watching the comet the reader understands that it’s five years later. You can indicate that time has passed through a house being built, or a child growing up, or it was winter and now it’s autumn. Or you can literally write a day or a date or a year at the top of a scene.
If you want to try writing a short story over a longer period of time, here’s an experiment: pick a fairy tale that you know occurs over the course of at least a year and retell it. You don’t have to try and sell your retelling – if it’s a plain retelling it will probably be extremely difficult to sell, anyway – but this will give you some practice at writing a short story over a longer duration without also having to worry about plot and characters.
Also, you might want to consider deliberately seeking out contemporary stories that you know occur over a long period of time and analyzing what the author has done structurally. If you’re interested in my own, I’ve had quite a few stories published over the past couple of years that occur over the span of at least a decade. I’ll put the links to those in the description below. From my recent 2020 recommendations post, I think “The Maid from the Ash: a Life in Pictures” by Gwendolyn Kiste is a great example of a short story with an extended duration. And if you’re looking for something more classic, the first thing that comes to my mind is “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, where if you do a quick Google search you can find that for free online.
If you’re watching this and you know of some more great short fiction that occurs over a long period of time, please do comment and let us know.
And my final general tip is something that especially applies to these sorts of stories, but that I keep in mind whenever I’m writing short fiction, and that is: I challenge myself to make the story as short as possible while still being good. The ‘still being good’ part is because, theoretically, I could tell any story in 200 words, but most stories would really suffer from being condensed that much. They need, you know, the details and the description and the series of events and the voice and everything else that makes them enjoyable, and that takes word count. So I try and make the story as short as possible without sacrificing anything that will actually make it a good story.
So that’s it for today. Thanks again for the request and the great discussion. If you’ve got your own request that you think I might be able to help with, let me know in the comments; I will strongly consider doing a video about it. If you liked this video, like and subscribe, and I will see you in the next one.