On Writing

Short Stories: The Heart of Literature

The Heart of Literature

Hey far be it from me to tell you how to become a novelist. There are more than enough great and not-so great books on writing. The basics are simple. Learn your mechanics, create a style, find the story you have to tell, and write it. Simple enough..or not.

A novel can be an unwieldy thing and often us “novelists” find ourselves in a tangled mess of weeds that began as a beautifully manicured story field. Getting control of your story can be like untangling those holiday lights you rolled up and stuffed in a box the previous year. Finding where a particular plot line went into the ditch like searching for a lose bulb on that same tangled string.

Me, I never wanted to write a novel. Seemed like a lot of work. Where do you begin? How do you come up with eighty thousand words? How do you keep it interesting for 300 pages? Before I became a novelist, well I believed you were all nuts (that opinion hasn’t changed, you are all still crazy, but it’s not because of the writing.)

My first novel was an accident. Just a short story that wouldn’t stop talking. I think I got lucky. I didn’t have to deal with the pressure of writing a novel the first time around. It just happened and it happened a chapter at a time. It was when I sat down to write the second novel that I grew a little panicky. Could I repeat it? Did I have another entire book’s worth of story? And…exactly how did I write that first one?

So I took a breath, got in front of my keyboard and did what every fiction writer does—I started out by typing out one lie…then another and another. More embellishment on top of more made up things until I reached the end and saw that not only was I an excellent liar, but I created an entire world of made up stuff. I was, as my friend and fellow author, the lovely SK Anthony says, an official “Make Stuff-Upper.”

Oh and I also fell back to my training…the short story.

The “novel” is kind of a new medium. Well in terms of the history of publishing. Like movies and music, they have grown as the public has grown accustomed to and requested “more.” Once upon a time, the average movie was just under two hours and the average song under three minutes. Today you can sit in a dark theater for over three hours and five and six minute songs aren’t unreasonable. The same is true of books.

The classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sun Also Rises, and The Great Gatsby are all well under 300 pages. The less than three hundred page book was a trend that continued well into the 1970s. Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, is about 250 pages. Today he’s not opposed to writing behemoths that are 1200 pages long. Something, that I imagine would have been a train wreck if it had been his first “at bat.” And other than being longer, I’m not sure the 842 page 11/22/63 is better than the 300 page Salem’s Lot.

But King honed his craft like many writers do—with short stories.

It’s not a requirement, of course, and many authors, you-all included, can nail the novel without ever writing a short story. Although I bet many us had a notebook as kids filled with “little” stories. I think there are a lot of benefits to the practice. So much so that I treat every book chapter as a short story—titles and all.

Writing short stories is what I know best, so why not apply it to my longer work? My very personal, untested, and unproven opinion is that if you can’t make your novel a very compelling short story, then the “essence” of your idea may not be firmly in your grasp. I’m not suggesting you should be able to boil the entire thing down to five thousand words, just the central plot.

I see four benefits to the practice of short story writing for a novelist. They translate to the kinds of things readers appreciate even in your longer works and the kind of stuff that help you catch that famed “tight” story line.

The Heart of the Story: Remember those school essays we had to write. Start with your theme sentence and five paragraphs. Your main point, your three supporting arguments and your conclusion. The format looks just like that of a fiction story. Your introduction, rising action, the climax, the falling action and the conclusion. That’s a story in total. Nothing more and nothing less. It is the heart of the entire thing.

It reminds me of a screen shot my son sent me from law school. It was the description of an episode of the television show “Criminal Minds” and it read: The team must stop a serial killer. If you watch the show you know how funny that is….because it describes every episode. And that’s the benefit of short story writing. Like Criminal Minds, it forces you to find the heart of your story. The thing you most want to say. It’s the cake and everything else is the frosting (icing if you’re one of those people)—decorate to suit your occasion. It’s good practice and is better than making the reader follow you for 80k words while you try to find it.

The Turn of the Screw: The famed novella is only forty-two thousand words long. It has had over twenty popular adaptations. Not only because it is a brilliant literary work, but because it is the type of story that lets the reader find some of their own “stuff” within. Writing short stories teaches us that it’s okay to leave some things for the reader to figure out. When space is of the essence you have to make decisions on what to include and what to not include and you realize if you spend a lot of time on back story or descriptions you have scant room for the heart.

A Controlled Burn: A lot can go wrong in three hundred pages. Errors, forgotten subplots, ramblings, conflicts in consistency. A short story is like an invisible fence that keeps the untamed horse from carrying us miles away before we get it under control. It’s the best practice ground. Think of it as running. If you were new to it or out of shape you wouldn’t ask a friend to drop you off twenty miles from home and try to run back. You’d start from home and never run farther than you had the energy to crawl back from. A short story ensures that you can get back home. It’s a very controlled environment and a lot easier to practice your mechanics and style. Look at that…you got two metaphors for the price of one.

Tween Girl Drama: Have you ever encountered a 12 year old girl who has just had a fight with her new ex-best friend? Ever been foolish enough to ask, “what happened?” If you have then you know what a long, emotional tale, filled with back-story, side stories, subplots with seemingly no endings feels like. Many writers worry that they don’t have enough words for their book and yet most stories get in trouble because of too many words. Sure we need to dress it all up, create characters, develop interest, but we want to be concise in the practice—that Missy moved here a year before the fight that created the ex-BFF status isn’t relevant if its not relevant. A short story reminds us that less is more and that every sentence counts. There just isn’t room for the extra drama or the purple prose.

Many famous authors still write short stories. Not because they need the practice, but often simply because it reminds us that story telling can be both quick and fun. Personally, I can’t give it up and sometimes, as I have, you find that your short has more heart and more to say that you thought…and then you have another novel. That was the case for You and Me Against the World, that was the case for The Devil’s Hour (originally a short called Sam’s Journal), and that will be the case of my 5th novel, The Case of Mister Dobbs. So if you’re having difficulty wrangling your novel or getting it started—start with a short story. Could be fun.

7 replies »

  1. Thank you for the wonderful advice! Short stories that begin by prompts are generally how many of my novellas and novels start out, so this post sang to me. Happy writing!

  2. An article written by someone who knows what they’re talking about. This is an excellent look at the short story form and it’s usefulness in novel writing.

    Also: “Your introduction, rising action, the climax, the falling action and the conclusion. That’s a story in total. Nothing more and nothing less. It is the heart of the entire thing.” is excellent advice – or an excellent reminder of how stories should be structured. Treating each chapter of a novel as a short story is a good shout too, and something I do as well. Great post Raymond!

  3. Short stories are fun to write for the freedom they afford. I don’t have to worry about going high-concept, and I can play around with less appealing characters, since readers are more willing to be challenged in that way for 10 pages than for 300.

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