Keeping it Short
As artists, we seem to be forever stuck with the curse of inspiration. Our ideas practically burst out of us, trying to find their own life and space to breathe while we run just to catch up.
Writing is hard, but I’m far from the first writer to think that writing short fiction can feel almost impossible to do satisfactorily, especially when you have such a small canvas to put your big ideas onto. In your head your ideas are limitless, so how could it ever be possible to put all of that on the page?
Scratch That magazine, like most other national literary journals and assignments in university courses, has a maximum length for writing at 2000 words. If it has ever seemed difficult to try and write something at this length—and even harder to be satisfied with it—then I’m sure I can offer just a few tips in this article for writing short fiction within what seems like a narrow word count.
First, it’s helpful to try and keep in mind the meaning of short fiction. Novels have room to breathe, characters to develop, plots that arc and twist. Short stories are just that—short. They’re snapshots of people or places in a particular time; microcosms of life that don’t have to adhere to three-act structures. Truly successful short stories should operate under the tenet of minimalism rather than maximalism. We don’t all have to be Raymond Carver of course, but we should always keep in mind how the power of suggestion can be more satisfying than anything else.
To be successful in executing an idea of short fiction, you must make sure you think of an idea that hints at rather than outright depicts. As Billy Wilder once said, if you let your reader put two and two together on their own, they’ll think that it’s you who’s the genius.
Another trick with managing length is to try and plan a projected word limit for each scene and stick to it—you might worry that this could come out with a piece of writing that’s stiff and unnatural, but overwriting and making hasty cuts at the end can lead to an even less natural feeling. Life and detail can always be put in during the edit stage, but cuts will always be removing that life.
Something else I myself have always found helpful when stuck with an overlong draft is to try and adapt the story into a short film screenplay to create a fresh perspective of where its faults are. A film script by its nature must be more direct, so you’ll find yourself naturally pruning the unnecessary parts of your writing to make the story fit within the means of visual storytelling. Then you can re-adapt the script back into fiction based on your edits. You’ll have a story much more streamlined and direct in its approach than you did before.
If you’re still worried about your story becoming too long or cumbersome for a short format, it can be helpful to go back to your initial idea and think about what form it could naturally belong to instead. Are there too many characters or scenes? Is the plot too complex or the relationship web too broad? If so, maybe it can be grown into a novel instead.
I’ve always known if an idea is wrong for its format, because I’ve always felt that discomfort radiating off the page. If this is the case, then there’s no shame in scrapping your work, especially if it will only take more time and effort in trying to desperately restructure it. You can try and fix an engine, but you should always check if it’s in the wrong car in the first place.
But when you come up with that natural short story idea and start putting it down on the page, you’ll know it belongs there because it’ll feel just that perfectly snug.