As I writer, I don’t think there’s any mystery as to why: the short story medium provides an accessible, immediate writing experience.
And so it was for me. After fifteen years’ ‘writing’ myself off for having any fiction writing abilities, I eventually found my voice and pumped out ten rather long short stories in late 2009.
I’ve been editing them ever since, primarily by reading them and researching what makes a great plot structure. As a result, I’ve observed a few interesting things about how to effectively edit short stories.
Sure, there are editors in the world (I am one by trade), many of them highly skilled and ready to edit any writer’s material. Take it from me, every editor will know when you haven’t read your own work. They’ll accept your money (they’ll deserve it, as your first audience), but things could get very sticky between you, and it won’t be all the editor’s fault. Print out your story, sit with it as you would a published title, and read it from beginning to end. Your gut will tell you where to start reshaping your story into what you envisaged when you first began to write it.
Don’t delete, adjust
It’s my assertion that editing is like a multiple choice examination: the answer is somewhere on the page. It’s tempting but dangerous to start ad-hoc cutting. After you’ve read, and reread your own work, decide on some method of ruminating on it – take a long walk, do your exercise session, use your commuting time. As you turn your characters and plot over, ideas will come to you. You may find yourself writing more instead of cutting. If you do cut (and there is nothing wrong with cutting), always keep what you cut somewhere where you can retrieve it if needed.
Size might matter
Everyone will tell you what the word length of a short story is. A rule of thumb suggests that if your reader can complete your story in one sitting, it’s a short story. If you’re entering a competition, stick to their guidelines, but if you have more to say than 1000-1500 words allow, you can generally call your story “short” if its upper word length is anywhere between 7500 and 20,000 words. Longer than that and you’ve written a novella or a long story. Flash Fiction is generally anything under 1000 words.
The dramatic arc still applies
The good news about short story plotting is that you can land your reader right in the climax of your storyline! However, plotting a short story does not mean dispensing with a dramatic arc, rather it’s about framing parts of your plot with windows that focus the reader on certain sections: the rest of the plot should still be there, it’s just not seen from your windows. Many short stories have gone on to become great novels, once the author expands on their existing storyline, but the short story version often remains the punchier experience of the writer’s inspiration.
I’ve already written about the five-act dramatic structure widely purported to be the benchmark for good writing, but in my short story editing process I’ve discovered the ways I’ve bent these rules for the sake of the short story medium. The antagonist of one story was born moments before its exposition ended, for example. The protagonist of another story did not ‘win’ the battle of the story’s climax, the antagonist conceded victory: turns out there’s a big difference. If, like me, you find a ‘rule’ missing, have fun working it back in. I added a three-line climax which made a problem story work in just five minutes, preceded by four years of rumination, of course, but who’s counting?
Keep it simple
Although a dramatic arc is needed for a short story, it’s probably unwise to layer it too much. Subplots are not a common ingredient in short story plots – there’s often just no time. Short stories, by their succinct nature, generally limit character numbers, locations, time periods, and other ‘luxuries’ that longer formats allow, but don’t let that prevent you writing Gone With the Wind in 1500 words.
An extract from Write, Regardless!
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.