Short Stories: Compressing Everything into a Few Pages

I've got short stories on the brain. I just had a short story posted on Merry Sisters of Fate, and I'm working on two stories for anthologies that are, frankly, killing me.

I am not good at short stories. I have trouble getting the idea for the story compressed into such a short space. More often than not, my short stories end up being opening chapters for novels. Seriously. I have written more novels than I've written short stories. I try to write a short story, but I get caught up in the world and the characters and the plot, and I end up with a novel. As hard as it is to believe, I find it much easier to write 90,000 words than 9,000.

Which means, of course, that I am fascinated by the short story form.

One of my favorites is Ray Bradbury's story "All Summer in a Day." I first learned about this story when Robin McKinley mentioned it on her blog, promptly tracked it down, and fell in love. If you'd like, the full text of the story is here (as well as clips of the PBS short made based on the story). But the premise is this: in a future world, people can live on other planets. But for the residents of Venus, you only get to see the sun once a year. When a little girl's class is preparing for the day of sun, things get out of control...

It's a tragic story, not the least of all because the true horror behind what happens is a very internal sort of horror. There's no monsters jumping out, here--it's not scary because of that. It's scary because--despite the fact that it takes place on Venus--it's a very realistic and true story about the human condition.

I think what makes a good story work is getting that one unique twist to it, and building the story around that. In Bradbury's story what happens to the girl is the twist, and he built the setting--and characters--around that.

For me, I like the stories with twists like this. My fave readings in junior high were by Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry, as well as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. Recently, I've been reading the fantastic collection of shorts in Zombies vs. Unicorns.

All the while, I'm trying to learn--what makes short stories work? And it seems to me that the ones I like the best are the ones just like Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day"--they provide a snippet of a whole world, but a full event for a single character.

What are some of YOUR favorite short stories? Any suggestions or advice for me in writing them?


Jess of All Trades said...

Some of the best advice I've read for short stories (which I also struggle with) is: No subplots.

Basically, I think of the short as, rather than the First chapter of a book, the Final one. Because in a novel you're telling the most important events in a character's life. In a short story you're telling the Moment. The Big Moment. Like you said, you build everything in the story around that moment.

You might enjoy the short stories of Peter S. Beagle (Of Last unicorn fame)...he's a master at that.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds 90,000 easier than 9k...or 2.

Good luck!

Jenna Wallace said...

That one! I just love the story because it conveys so much about the characters wants and needs in few words.

I always think of it this way: novels are movies, short stories are photographs. In a short story, you pick up the action at one moment in time and give a small glimpse in that world.

Mandy P.S. said...

One of my favorite short stories is "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin. Haunting, simple, and well...cold.

And I love anything short by Asimov or Ray Bradbury as well. They were masters of the craft.

And I totally sympathize with not being able to write short stories but being able to write novels. I love short stories but I just can't do it. It's so hard!

C. Michael Fontes said...


My writers group just completed and Anthology, so I know these feelings all too well!

Since you are in short-story-mode, if I could finagle you a copy, would you be interested?

Cherie Reich said...

I tend to write more short stories than novels.

I took a short story workshop last year, and I think the best advice I got is for a short story, you are looking at a moment in time. Short stories should have all that great stuff novels do: characters, setting, voice, plot, theme, etc.

A lot of times, I think of short stories as the end of a novel. The culmination of who the characters are and what happens to them. You can't have much or any back story. You focus on the here and now. Every word counts even more in a short story.

And, another thing I learned in that workshop is sometimes limiting the amount of characters can help. :)