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.
Grub Street Team Member
photo credit: Golden Gate Film Noir via photopin (license)
The image above is "Flight" by Gillian Collins.