Part of constraining a short story to its simplest form is to observe the convention of its length. Edgar Allen Poe said it should aim for a single effect on the reader and should be of a length that could be read in a single sitting. Some readers, however, are willing to sit longer than others.
In general, the contemporary short story has a word count up to 10,000 words, although I’ve seen mention of much higher, and I’ve read ones with greater heft and complex effect. In terms of my own writing, I write very short, anywhere from 250 to 2,000 words per story, although some reach between 3,000 and 5,000. For me the answer to the question How do you keep a short story short? is simple: that’s how they turn out. How to make it a good story is more difficult. In this, we learn together.
“Being short does not mean slight. A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience of meaning,” Flannery O’Conner wrote in Mystery and Manners. “Nothing essential to the main experience can be left out of a short story. All the action has to be satisfactorily accounted for in terms of motivation, and there has to be a beginning, middle, and an end, though not necessarily in that order.”
O’Conner’s stories are character-driven: “[a] story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality.” When you write stories, O’Conner says, “…you have to be content to start exactly there—showing how some specific folks…will do in spite of everything.” She reminds us that “fiction operates through the senses” and that the writer “has to create a world with weight and extension.” She did concede that the process of writing became increasingly mysterious to her the more she wrote. “The more stories I write, the more mysterious I find the process and the less I find myself capable of analyzing it…nothing produces silence like experience…”
Not all short stories answer to the beginning-middle-end aesthetic or contain a definitive personality or even strive to attain meaning, but there’s something about the good ones that resonates with us, drawing us into their worlds and remaining with us, and when they do, they typically contain some aspect of what Poe and O’Conner mention, especially a sense of compressed depth, weight, and extension. There’s also the claim that stories require these moments of beginning, middle, and ending, as well as something troublesome, a turning point for a character, if not outright conflict.
Unlike novels, short stories are not as forgiving for the meandering writer or the novelist. Every word does count, typically carrying extra freight. The short story thrives on subtext and nuance, but too much cleverness can lose your reader by throwing them out of the story because it doesn’t make sense. Nothing is lost by generosity, neither to your readers or your characters. We want our stories, I think, to gain radiance and vibrancy, even beauty. (For an example of an exquisite short story, read “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel.)
Pointers for Keeping Your Short Story Short:
- Work with the constraints of limited word and space, use them to play to strengths of the form
- Use varying sentence length
- Use consistent POV and tense or use sections to help guide the reader to different ones or jumps in POV and tense
- Use fewer or shorter transition sentences between scenes
- Exploit titles for greater impact
- Longer scenes, shorter sequels
- Use vibrant images
- Strive for emotional resonance
- Engage the senses
- Use active language
- Avoid sentiment but reach for human experience
- Replace abstract concepts with scenes; instead of telling “love,” demonstrate it
- Essential dialogue only and use as few tags as possible
- Use subplots as an enhancement
- Cut only those elements that drag down the story; keep the essential
Short stories tend to maintain one narrative perspective, but short story writers like to experiment with fluid perspectives—they play with form, structure, the elements of fiction, and the space of the page. And this takes me to how many short story writers approach the writing of their stories. George Saunders shares something about his creative process in his affecting short film, George Saunders: On Story.
In it, he says, “the process of crafting a good story means not condescending to your reader. It means creating sentences that clue them into something unnoticed about the character, and allowing them to figure it out. A bad story is one where you know what the story is and you’re sure of it.” For Saunders, storytelling is a stand-in for day-to-day life—and the same considerations you take when approaching how to tell a story mirror the freedom to self-determined identity that you give your loved ones.
“For me,” Saunders continues, “the process of sitting down to write a story is to keep your eyes open all of the time. Keep yourself mystified and to say, this thing defies systemization, it really does. Every story is different. You arrive at it with your tools from the last story and it says, ‘No no no no no. We are all seeing through that. Don’t pull out those old trick on me. You go out in the world, see what it is. It’s just as fresh now as it was when you were 18. Go out there and experience it, come back in befuddled and then try it.’ I don’t care how old you are. Do something beautiful.”
I hope you enjoy writing and revising your next short story! Thank you so much for the question that prompted this post.
Other Resources for Short Story Writing:
Charles Baxter: Burning Down The House: Essays On Fiction and The Art of Subtext
Flannery O’Conner: Mystery and Manners
The Rose Metal Press Guides to Flash Fiction and Prose Poetry
Tin House Writers Notebooks I & II
April has a Master’s in Ethics from Yale University and studied Philosophy and Theology as a post-graduate scholar at Cambridge University. Her fiction has appeared in many literary magazines and has been nominated for the 2015 Best of the Net Anthology as well as the 2017 Pushcart Prize. She is the Associate Editor for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press and the Founder and Editor of Women Who Flash Their Lit. Find out more about April here, visit her website, and catch up with her online.
Victoria Marie Lees says
Thanks so much for these great tips. I’ve shared the post online and also connected with you through social media, April. I write short YA adventure stories, 1,800 words max. I also like reading other short stories to see how the author accomplishes his or her story in such a short space of words.
It was a sad story by Hempel. I enjoyed Saunders’ video. Thanks again for the tips!
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Great post, April–a lot of this can also be applied to longer works too–I love it when you share your brain with us! 🙂
April Bradley says
You are welcome! Thank you for inviting me, Angela. This post was so much fun. Writing long, even long short stories challenges me, so I have the opposite problem: expansion. We all struggle with aesthetics, though. The Paris Review’s The Art Of Fiction interviews is a resource for everyone, and this author has catalogued the first 223: http://lanceschaubert.org/2014/09/01/paris-review-art-of-fiction-list/
Will Weaver says
In speaking to Poe’s theory I think it’s important to include his focus on “unity” (of effect). He uses “unity/unified” several times in this famous description. That is (of course) every item large or small, none “extrinsic”, gathering toward that single effect…. Thanks for keeping Poe alive. We still need him.
April Bradley says
Thank you, Will, for explicating Poe further. I agree that agree that a powerful, unified single effect is highly effective. For anyone interested in following up on this important theory, here’s a link to Poe’s excerpted 1842 commentary on the topic in Graham’s Magazine:
Quote Investigator also has compiled several sources of Poe’s composition and short story craft theory: https://www.google.com/amp/s/quoteinvestigator.com/2013/08/15/single-effect/amp/
I go back to Poe again and again. Thank you again for highlighting his theories.
paula cappa says
Gee, this is a great post today. Thanks for such comprehensive insights. I love to read short stories (they make perfect lunchtime reads) and feature a free short story twice a month on my blog. I write short stories too, but I find reading them is wonderfully instructive on form and structure. I especially like to observe how other writers reveal character and advance the plot in such a short span of time and space.
April Bradley says
Thank you so much for your compliment, Paula, and I’d love to read your blog. I’ll look you up, bland if you have time, please provide a link so others can find it and read the stories you feature.