There's no getting around it: short stories are a pain to write. They require more than simply cramming a novel's plot into ten or so pages. Short stories require a degree of minimalism that is difficult to achieve because along with that minimalism, short stories still need all of the traits of good fiction. They need believable characters and strong dialogue. They need a plot with a logical beginning and end. Most importantly, they need to make the reader feel something for the characters.
That's hard, and it's made harder by a lot of the common temptations writers encounter. Many writers want to cram a lot of very large ideas into very few pages, and they wind up diluting much of what makes their story powerful. Frequently, great ideas become over-complicated and cumbersome. Here are a few of common temptations I have seen over the years along with some tips on how to avoid them.
World-Building: Whether it's a fantasy story where you have to demonstrate the rich depth of your setting or a modern story where you need to take the reader into a quaint little town and tell them all about the protagonist's childhood, world-building can be a dangerous trap. Every sentence you use to describe the setting is a sentence that you cannot use to move events along or help the reader empathize with the main characters. More often than not, this temptation bogs down otherwise-good short stories with extra pages and unnecessary details, and it turns a fast-moving plot into molasses. Tip: When looking at world-building, ask yourself if it is necessary to the plot or to the characters. If Lord Such-and-Such's bloodline or the diner where Joe Schmoe got his first kiss features prominently in the plot, then it might be worth detailing. If not, it's cruft. Cut it.
Unreliable Narrators: Unreliable narrators are in some of the best stories around. Unreliable narrators force the reader to question reality. The best ones make the reader think not only about the story but about him or herself and his or her own life; they serve as a vehicle for self-exploration. This is one of the reasons this temptation is so dangerous. Often, you want to make their work profound, thought-provoking, and perhaps even a little disturbing. Unfortunately, just as often, the unreliable narrator is used as a sort of shortcut to this end. Worse still, the unreliable narrator allows you to cheat to permit characters to perform actions that don't make sense logically. Writers feel justified in writing these erratic actions because the characters are "crazy." Perhaps worst of all, the unreliable narrator is often a last-minute reveal, where it turns out that the character was always crazy as a sort of "it-was-all-just-a-dream" shock ending.
Tip: Be careful when writing an unreliable narrator. You have to thread the hints of unreliability through the story in very subtle ways. You have to make the reader question the nature of the story long before the ending, or it loses all power and cheapens your attempt at a shock ending. At the same time, you cannot have the character simply "be crazy," because even "crazy" people operate under internal logic. You have to walk a very fine line between the character being unreliable and the character being insane; that line is hard to find.
Point-of-View Shifts: When you create many great characters, you really want to show off what is going on in their heads, right? Characters have all of these interesting thoughts, and sharing all of these thoughts works in a lot of novels. Because it works in novels, you may think it will work in your short stories. In a novel, a point-of-view shift serves to break up the action and show the reader other perspectives that the main character could not possibly know about. A point-of-view shift in a short story is killer, because it disconnects readers from the person they were empathizing with and learning about, and it forces readers to learn about an entirely new character. It is disorientating, and it takes readers out of the work. More often than not, it leaves readers confused.
Tip: Point-of-view shifts are almost never necessary in a short story. If you feel the need to use them, make sure you still have enough from the perspective of each character so that the reader can get attached to him or her. Try to switch as seldom as possible.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. There are always times when you need that crucial bit of detail or when you need your narrator to be a little bit strange. Part of the process of becoming a better writer is learning when and how to break the rules in order to enhance, rather than detract from, your piece. More temptations, as well as how to avoid them, will follow. Keep an eye on this space, and keep writing.
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photo credit: Golden Gate Film Noir via photopin (license)
#10 Turn off your phone: It does not help to have five million people texting or calling you when you are trying to write something. It is best to just power down your iPhone or at least put it on "Do Not Disturb." Your friends will survive for an hour or two while you get down to business.
#9 You know what? Just turn off all electronics: As with cellphones, other electronics provide unlimited ways to divert your attention. I doubt you can crank out a good story or poem while having Facebook open in a separate tab - unless maybe you are writing about social media.
#8 Listen to music: So for people like me, this technique does not help; music tends to distract me. I know several people, however, who have musical muses from whom they gain inspiration. A friend of mine loves to paint while listening to the instrumental soundtracks from Tim Burton movies. She claims that listening to this music is inspirational for her.
#7 Find a quiet space to focus: If you are on the opposite end of the spectrum and prefer to work in complete silence, then welcome to my world. Remove yourself from any noisy animals, crowded living rooms, or talkative roommates to reduce interference. If I am in my apartment and here so much as a whistle from down the hallway, I am screwed. A quiet space is not such a bad idea when trying to make a piece even Vincent van Gogh would weep over (or cut his ear off for).
#6 Go to the gym: Getting your blood flowing does wonders for both your mind and body. Working out on the elliptical or running on the treadmill can reduce stress for some people. Once you have showered off and feel relaxed it should not be a problem to think of at least one idea.
#5 Write about completing a daily task: While this may seem odd, it actually helps a lot. I learned this trick from a professor here at Towson during my junior year. He challenged us to write a prompt that involved a lot of action verbs instead of littering every sentence with multiple adjectives. We could write about anything we wanted, but he suggested explaining a daily task. After describing my pain over cleaning the dishes in my apartment, I felt inspired to continue with the story. I learned that even something as insignificant as taking out the trash could lead to a whole new story. Give it a try!
#4 Grab a bite to eat: How can you really work on an empty stomach? Food fuels you in so many ways. Before you sit down and start working, save yourself some stomach-rumbling and get some food. This advice also goes in line with gaining some inspiration from completing a daily task. You just killed two birds with one stone - how does it feel?
#3 Get a decent amount of sleep: This goes along with the idea of self-care. If you cannot function as a proper human being, chances are you cannot function as writer. Take some time to catch some z's and wake up feeling ready to get at it! Little sleep leads to little focus.
#2 Go for a walk to clear your head: Fresh air does the mind and body good. Stop staring at your desk; there are not many ideas there. Instead, go find a penny on the sidewalk or talk to a friendly stranger. Random acts like these are likely to help the cogs start turning again.
#1 Take a shower or a bath: This is my favorite thing to do when I am trying to gain inspiration. Simply standing under a warm stream of waters seems to let my thoughts flow more freely. Taking a shower or a bath is a time of relaxation that does not force you to think too hard about anything in particular. You would be amazed at what you can come up with when your mind is truly free to think about anything.
Grub Street Team Member
Everyone is given bad advice at some point in his or her life, and for a novice writer looking to improve, there is nothing more dangerous. Here is a list of bad advice for fledgling writers to avoid.
Do not outline or plan: This advice is based on the idea that outlining and planning stunts creativity. There are some people, however, who work better by planning before taking action. For some writers, rather than constricting creativity, outlining and planning can enable thought and creativity previously hidden. Instead of constantly worrying about the plot line, character arcs, and other future aspects of their writing, those who plan are able to point out specific points and changes within their work. Later, they can elaborate, expand, and create a more detailed and sensory-driven piece.
Write what you know: The essence of this advice is that by writing about personal experiences a writer can use enough description, emotion, and imagery to convey his or her message. However, to the best of my knowledge, magic remains a product of our imaginations, and dragons have never existed (at the very least not in human history). And these mythical stories, legends, and folklore that drive many stories remain just that - fictional stories. Yet, if the advice is true, and we are only to "write what we know," how could authors like J.K. Rowling or Christopher Paolini written such successful novels?
You must read a lot in order to write well: While it is true that reading helps a writer in many ways (such as expanding vocabulary and assisting with the discovery of literary techniques, an excessive amount of reading is not required for a writer to write well. The practice and application of techniques can be enough. If you love writing, but you are not too big on reading, don't stress. Just be sure to take time out of your schedule, whenever possible, to write your heart out.
Be original: Ideally, every writer would have fresh ideas that would lend themselves to the telling of fresh stories. In reality, there is no such thing as a purely original idea anymore. Humanity has been creating stories for such a long time that all original ideas have been exhausted and reused as the basis for new adventures and journeys.
Writing is about seeing more than the black and white in life; there are shades of gray shadowed throughout all aspects of the world. Taking these shades and expressing them in words - explaining, and describing them - is the job of the writer. Keep on writing and do not let others tell you how to express yourself. Do not lose sight of why you write, whether it be to entertain, to express yourself, or simply because you must.
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