After some of the responses I got from my last post, I started to get the impression that people might actually struggle with writing short stories. Until another writer pointed it out to me, I kind of always thought that short stories were easy for everyone. Ya know, something a writer could crank out in an afternoon, no problem.
I guess I developed that point of view because of my writing background. While most writers started out writing simplistic stories when they were kids, I started out writing poetry as a kid. See, my family is very Irish, and it’s a family tradition that all the girls learn to write poetry or lyrics. So, while everyone else was writing daring tales of their heroic pet cat, I was twisting words to describe a blue sky or the shape of a cloud.
In poetry word choice is everything. Poets don’t have the luxury to spend 40 pages describing something. They need to say what they mean in a word, maybe two. Because their format is so confining, each word has so much more weight then what you might find in something bigger like a novel. Though writing poetry can be tricky and even frustrating sometimes, the one good thing is that it makes a writer’s vocabulary explode! If you ever find yourself at a loss for words while writing, definitely try writing poetry for a few hours.
I hope you see where I’m going with this ramble. That’s right, the exact same skills a poet uses in writing poetry are also used to write short stories. Just like in poetry, in short stories every word has to have a lot of meaning. No filler words!
Here’s an example. In a novel a person’s voice might be described like this:
She had a voice that was pleasant for everyone to hear. It was high, but not so high that it was screechy, but not so low it sounded like a squawk. It was like listening to music even though she wasn’t singing.
While in a short story it would be described more like this:
Her voice chimed like a glass bell.
This word choice is important for two reasons. One, it’s a lot shorter and fits into the smaller format. And two, the words do double duty.
The first critical words are “chimed” and “bell”. What kind of imagery do they bring up? Well, where do bells chime? In churches, temples, during celebrations. Bells have been traditionally used for purification. So maybe this character is pure, innocent, or even holy in some way. The second critical word is “glass“. What kind of imagery does glass create? Glass is fragile, delicate, something you have to be gentle with. So maybe this character is fragile is some way.
These three simple words, chimed, glass, bell, described her voice but also described the character’s personality. In a short story, these three words are probably the only description I would give for this character. Even if she’s the main character. In fact, most of my short stories have no description of the main character. The MCs are only defined by their names and by the way they act.
I know this is only one element of writing a short story, and it takes a lot more skills and techniques to write a good story in a small format, but word choice is a really import skill. I hope this is helpful for all you short story strugglers out there. And if I could only give one little tip for you to take away with you, it would be to write more poetry. Really, it’s a great warm-up before writing short format anything.
Do you have any short story writing tips to share? I’d love to hear about them, please leave them in the comments area below.