Ever since I was little, I have been taken by the idea of writing a novel. As a child, I wrote several novel beginnings, never finishing an entire draft until I was twenty years old. A contrarian in every way possible, while other people wrote short stories and did mini writing exercises, I vehemently protested the “system” by always pursuing novel ideas. While I wrote a few short stories outside of these many failed novel attempts, I for the most part stayed away from writing short fiction. I viewed the medium as something for people with smaller goals than me, not yet understanding why short stories are so vital to a writer’s literary career. And while finishing a draft of a novel was the push I needed to become the dedicated writer I am today, sometimes I wonder – if I had written those short stories long ago, would writing my novel be an easier process today?
For a long time, I lived in this very ant-short story world and originally imagined writing this post about why you don’t need to write short stories at all to be a good writer. And to some extent, that’s probably true. You can have a great novel idea in your head that comes out beautifully within the first draft, never having written a short story in your life. But the odds of that happening are slim-to-none, which is why it is so beneficial to learn about being a writer via short stories.
While it was likely a novel that made you fall in love with your favorite author, nearly every successful writer – even writers of epic fantasy like George R.R. Martin – started out writing short fiction. This doesn’t mean the only way you can be “successful” as a writer is by short fiction. Instead, it suggests that first, a great way to get into the industry is via short story submissions, and second, that short stories offer a low risk, high rewards way to hone in on your craft.
However, if you are especially disinclined towards writing short fiction, consider writing a short piece from a character in your novel who isn’t the main character or a prologue twenty years prior. See what you can say in a small but complete narrative, straying from the typical three-act structure.
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What You Can Learn From Short Stories
It’s Structure Free
Are you anti-structure or a contrarian like me? Short stories are perfect for you then! Since there is no time for a typical three act structure in a short story (usually – though feel free to challenge this convention as you gain more experience), writers are forced to be more creative in what they show the reader, and since short stories are so short, readers are more patient with this structureless narrative.
For instance, in a short story you can have one character or twenty, remain in one location or hop to a new one every sentence, describe everything your character sees or nothing, and so forth. Rarely is there time for the beginning, middle and end, but there’s often time for one or two of those things – or maybe none. By writing short fiction, you can capture snippets of a store, hiding details and opening up more for interpretation with a lack of structure. As a result, shorts do a great job challenging what we really define as a story in the first place.
It’s a Challenging Medium
Because of the lack of structure mentioned above, writing short stories is often harder than writing full length ones, hence why beginning and seasoned writers alike might stray away from the short story. After all, everything you read is likely full-length, making the short story all the more foreign and less appealing, especially when you are generating full-length ideas in your head.
In a short story, you must tell an engaging story in a small period of time, keeping readers relatively engaged without rushing things. You must do something like explain characters with a few interactions or show a small conversation that speaks to an entire arc of someone’s life. Already doing all of that in a handful of pages seems impossible, but some people do it in one. In many ways it speaks to the idea that if you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it well. Writing shorts then is an art and it’s one people stray away from because we encounter it less. However, this unfamiliarity can be quickly fixed the way you were taught to fix every other writer woe – by reading.
Just like you should be reading novels if you want to write them, you should be reading short stories. Luckily, doing so is incredibly easy to access because the work is – you guessed it – short, and often even freely available online. Just search your favorite author and see what comes up, or buy a collected book of short stories like this year’s Best American Short Stories edited by Junot Díaz or ones that are written by one author like Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. It’s not only a great way to learn how to tell short stories, but a great way to discover new authors you might not have read before.
Feel like you could use more guidance? I’ve got a simple cheatsheet to understanding short stories just for you!
It Teaches You to Be Intentional
When you’re writing a 100,000 word manuscript, you often have to sacrifice a lot of nice, slow writing time to get the job done – at least in the first draft. However, when you write a short story, you can really slow down and take your time, writing only a few lines a day if you wish, to really make every part of your story feel like a choice.
Choice as an author is an important thing to be aware of, and sometimes we forget that. When writing a short story, you become dauntingly more aware of the impact of that one sentence being it’s own paragraph versus the beginning of the next one can make on a story’s tone and style. Though you should listen to your writer’s intuition in the first draft, when you craft your short story be sure to also pay attention to that reader part of you, something that is difficult to do when you’re being swallowed by your novel.
It Teaches You How to Edit
In writing classes we are rarely taught how to edit – at least at first. Instead we are taught how to write. If you can only make it to a few writing classes in your life, then this often will leave you feeling very confused as to how to edit at all. Where do you start? What do you focus on?
It wasn’t until I was editing my novel that I realized how fruitful it would have been for me to learn how to edit short stories first before trying to edit a novel. Why? Because when you edit a short piece – even one that’s 30 pages, you can really slow down and see both the big picture and the small details without getting overwhelmed.
Like with writing, there aren’t any rules for how to edit. Everyone does it differently. But when you focus on writing short stories, you can learn these editing skills much more easily than if you are trying to learn to edit a novel, because the scope is so small. You have far less to keep track of and get overwhelmed with and you won’t have the rush to get through 300 pages and edit as fast as you can. Instead you’ll be able to edit slowly. Suddenly combing through line by line of a paragraph becomes a delight to get right, now something weighing you down because you’re thinking about all the other paragraphs later. Furthermore, you’ll learn what’s best for your editing style so that when you do get to that huge novel you’ve been dying to write, the editing comes easier for you.
What You Gain From Short Stories
Besides everything listed above, another great reason to write them in the first place is that you can submit them to competitions and magazines, a great way to get recognized by an agent or editor if that’s the avenue you choose to take. Then, if you work is selected you are an official published author!
Additionally, if you’re someone who is writing a screenplay, play, or video game script, the reasoning to write a short piece (minus the publication aspect) still stand to help you because there is something about learning how to write a small, succinct piece that teaches storytellers how to prepare for the long haul later, no matter the medium.
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What do you think about short stories? Have you written many? Why not challenge yourself to something even harder with a six-word story?