Fundamentals of creative writing: short stories

Fundamentals of creative writing: short stories. Part of free crash course from Ruth Wade.

A short story is not a truncated novel, or one that has shrunk in the wash.

Short stories tend to only have space for a linear plot and no subplots. This isn’t a rule, but the more you attempt to cram in, the messier everything is likely to get.

Short stories are like prose poems in their intense focus on language – every word not only having to be the right one in the right place but serving double, or even triple, purpose. A novel should possess the same qualities but its length and complexity create other spinning plates. In a short story the reader’s focus is intensely on what you have given them rather than having the time to slowly build up the fictional world of a novel.

The art of crafting a short story comes down to the ability – and bravery – to cut. To the bone if necessary.

A short story writer has more opportunities to play and experiment than the novelist. You can embark on an anthology of linked subjects, contrasting themes, or dramatically different scenarios. Perhaps you are drawn to exploring a selection of events as they impact a particular character. You can do it all.

My students ask ‘How long is a short story?’ and I come out with that smart-aleck answer about the length of a piece of string. It depends. If you’ve been given a word count (for a competition perhaps) then it’s not a syllable more. Every story has a natural length; with practice you learn to recognise when you’ve reached it.

You can find more on the skills & craft of writing

narrative & voice
revision & rewriting
the novel

What some other writers have to say about short stories:

Writing a book of short stories is much more difficult than writing a novel. Every time you write a short story, you have to begin all over again.
Gabriel Garciá Márquez 

I think I’d sooner write short stories than novels. I feel really happy with a short story. I like the sense of completing something.
P. G. Wodehouse

The short story is the nearest thing I know to lyric poetry.
Frank O’Connor

I think I really wanted to be a short story writer because I thought I was a man of short breath. I haven’t got the breath to write novels . . . A novel is like a enormous tree with branches going off it in all directions.
V. S. Pritchett

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.
Henry David Thoreau

I think it is the art of the glimpse. If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an Impressionist painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more.
William Trevor

See also quotes on writing craft, general writing quotes, and tough love words of wisdom. In addition, you might find inspiration amongst the thoughts on creativity.