The Short Story is a Harsh Mistress

Until about a year ago, almost all of the writing that I had ever done was in long format and mostly for novels. The thing about a long manuscript is, well, that it’s long. It takes time to complete and requires an immense commitment of time and effort for not even a sure promise of pay. It’s tough and it’s scary and, for some reason, I always thought it was the thing for me.

Suddenly, thanks to the writing critique group that I attend once or twice a month, I seem to have become a short fiction writer. It’s been quite a transformation. Short stories were never something I was too interested in reading or writing for myself so when I discovered that I genuinely enjoyed them, I was more than a little shocked.

But the short story is a strict and difficult mistress to serve. She demands a rigid structure and little divergence from the map that she has made. She wants characters, she wants action, and she wants a beginning, a middle, and an end. The more recently that you have come into her service, the wiser you would be to follow her demands to the letter.

There is no diluting the basics of storytelling in such a short form if you want your story to be successful. With so few words, every one is valuable, and none should be wasted on content that does not reveal character or advance the plot. This is true in the novel, too, of course, but I dare say it is boiled down and concentrated in the short story even more so.

Do not open with background stories or history — readers are here for a prize fight and not a university lecture. Establish the setting, introduce the narrator, and make clear the stakes. Follow the beginning-middle-end structure as it is crucial, especially for beginning writers in the short form.

The short story is a great exercise no matter what format you normally write. The satisfaction of completing something can be a reward unto itself, not to mention that putting words on the page is always a good thing. So, do it. Write. Make things happen.

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