Two Often Overlooked Reasons For Writing Short Stories

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

hemingway-thought-bubble

I love a good short story. When done right, it can lay you out emotionally, delight you, scare you, make you think, or some combination of the above. All in under 7,000 words.

Some of my best reading experiences have been short stories. Off the top of my head I see:

“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway.

“The Eighty-Yard Run” by Irwin Shaw.

“Chapter and Verse” by Jeffery Deaver.

“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.

All the stories in My Name is Aram by William Saroyan.

“The Ledge” by Stephen King.

When I was in college, I got into a workshop with one of the masters of the short story, Raymond Carver. What I learned was this: I couldn’t write like him. Or Hemingway. Or Saroyan. And I could not figure out the craft of the story. I was discouraged. I wish I’d known what Ray Bradbury was about to say in his Paris Review interview: “You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James?”

A couple of decades later I became a published novelist. Short stories remained elusive to me. But I still wanted to write them. Eventually, I went looking for some sort of key to the craft of short story writing. It took me a long time, but I finally found it.

how-to-write-short-stories-coverNaturally I had to write a book about it.

This book covers my theory of this “master key,” and goes on to suggest strategies for using short stories to help you with your long-term career goals. The book also has five complete stories for your analysis, including the aforementioned “Chapter and Verse” (with the kind permission of Mr. Deaver).

Today I want to talk about two often overlooked reasons for writing the occasional short story. The first reason is, simply, that they’re fun. Lawrence Block, one of the grand masters of crime fiction––short and long––says in The Liar’s Companion: A Field Guide for Fiction Writers:

I figured short stories would be fun. They always are. I think I probably enjoy them more than novels. When they go well, they provide almost immediate gratification. When they go horribly hopelessly wrong, so what? To discard a failed short story is to throw away the work of a handful of hours, perhaps a couple of days. In a short story I can try new things, play with new styles, and take unaccustomed risks. They’re fun.

Why should you sometimes write just for fun? I’m glad you asked:

  • Because “fun is the best thing to have.” – Arthur Bach
  • Taking a break from longer work to have fun refreshes your writer’s mind

Now, “fun” does not mean you’re just writing fluff. Far from it. Which leads me to the second overlooked reason for writing short stories: to deepen your intensity. Once again, Bradbury:

[T]he problem of the novel is to stay truthful. The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.

Writing a short story this way sharpens your ability to concentrate, and also teaches you to bring intensity to the writing of scenes. Since scenes are the building blocks of your novels, that’s all to the good for your overall craft toolbox.

And so I have launched How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career. The e-version may be found here:

Kindle 

Amazon International Stores

Nook

Kobo

A print version is available via Amazon or Barnes & Noble

In last week’s post, I asked you about books that may have brought solace to you at a point in your life. Can you think of a short story that had a similar impact? Was it memorable in other ways? Who is your favorite short story writer?

And have you tried your hand at the short story? What’s been the result?

8+

56 thoughts on “Two Often Overlooked Reasons For Writing Short Stories

  1. Yes, short stories are fun, just like reading this post of yours this morning is fun. I am one of those that carries on with a short story too long (even years) and probably sometimes (oftentimes!) over-intellectualize and try to be too fancy. One of my many shortcomings. But that’s one of the many reasons I come to the Kill Zone–to listen and learn and enjoy and practice and grow. But this subject is interesting to me in particular because had a discussion with a good friend of mine about this–that he actually cannot write a story or article for more than one day… he has to write it all when he’s feeling it that day, and a day later he is no longer able to get back into that mode…other than editing. So all of his stories and articles that he has ever written and published, without exception, have been done in an afternoon. Pretty cool. I can learn from him too.

    A short story I loved: The Swimmer by John Cheever.

    Thanks for posting.

    • Hi John. I mention “The Swimmer” in the book. Hard to believe that this short story was turned into a full-length movie.

      Anyways, the “one day” idea (a la Bradbury) is good exercise for the writer — much like swimming a few laps!

  2. O. Henry and Poe are my favorites. Also Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. I loved his classic TV series with the wonderful surprise twist endings. In the ’50s and ’60s, many half-hour Twilight Zone episodes were based on short stories.

    When I got back into writing after a long hiatus, I started with shorts and churned out one a week for a community college creative writing class. But, alas, publication opportunities were drying up in the late 1980s. After a check from one small mag bounced, they offered me a “lifetime” subscription in lieu of payment. That “lifetime” lasted one more issue. Experts said short fiction was dead. I turned to nonfiction and novels.

    I’m really glad to see the resurgence, along with today’s opportunities to publish shorts. Bought your book, Jim, and am looking forward to giving short fiction another whirl.

    • O. Henry (real name William Sydney Porter) had this amazing streak of writing a story a week for the New York World Sunday Magazine. I’ve included “The Last Leaf” in my book. Thanks for giving it a flyer!

  3. Thank you for this boost. I never thought I could write a short story either. Then my son got stuck in this Kafka-esque nightmare of being unable to get off the Terrorist Watch List. The insanity of it made me so crazy I had to write 2,500 words just trying to fill in the blanks and make sense of it. Turned out to be a pretty good story, bringing an honorable mention in a recent writing contest. And you’re right, it was fun–and also healthy in a way. Now I want to write another story, so I’m waiting for someone else in my family to have a weird problem.

    “Shorty Happy Life” is my favorite, too. And then there’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”

    • Nancy, nice to hear about your story. The “intensity level” is obvious.

      And yes, “Hills Like White Elephants” is another classic. I use an excerpt from that when I teach dialogue.

  4. They are so much fun to write, I agree. They’re also a great way to gain visibility to our longer works. I love Jeffrey Deaver. Thanks for the recommendation of his short story. Checking it out now.

  5. Thanks for the new title dealing with writing the short story. I’ve been looking for something that specifically tackles this seemingly mysterious subject. It’s weird. I used to write nothing but short stories in grade and high school, but as an adult, I’ve seemingly forgotten how.

    I need to take them up again, precisely for the sharpening the skills reason you mention above, not to mention their value as a shorter work produced between large projects.

    Read your book in one sitting and really appreciated the format of not only teaching how to write a short story, but their strategic use in a writer’s career. It was extremely helpful with the supplement of short story examples in the back, particularly O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf.” That very much helped to visualize the technique.

  6. Connie Willis time travel story, “Fire Watch,” hit me like a ton of bricks when I read it back in the 1980s. The story of a time traveling historian sent not to met Saint Paul as he had planned but instead to the London Blitz in 1940, and who wound up fighting to save the cathedral and survive, still moves me.

    I have written many short stories, and learned a lot while doing so. A number have been published in online magazines. One of which, “Running Tangent,” co-written with my friend K.C. Ball and which appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize last year, an annual small press award. As an indie novelist, award nominations aren’t on my radar, so it was cool to see that story receive one.

    Thanks for another great post and another wonderful book on the craft of fiction writing–I snapped it up right away.

  7. Short stories are a great way for new authors (and all authors) to develop their writing skills. They also provide great free content for an author website and make a nice marketing tool. Of course, if you write enough short stories, particularly if they are focused on a similar topic, you’ll be able to publish (or self-publish) a short collection. If that’s not enough motivation, there are also many writing contests for short stories. The holiday season is upon us, and that reminds me of one of my favorite short stories: “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. This timeless story makes me feel something every time I read it, and I’ve read it many times. If you’re looking for a writing topic, you could try your hand at an inspirational holiday story.

  8. I’ve written only short stories so far (maybe something in my genes–I also never ran a marathon, tho I did 25K three times).

    I’ve experienced both ends of the Bradbury thought about writing quickly. I’ve spent maybe two years trying to meld seven crime & detection short stories into a novella, editing and re-editing. On the other hand, I’ve done several things in a couple of days for The Weekly Knob, on medium dot com, where they post a prompt on Monday and you have to submit by Friday night. Some of them I think turned out quite decent, with the intensity JSB refers to. https://medium.com/@ehb2013ehb/my-fiction-index-81255ba7dad5

    Longer stories (10k-20k) necessarily take longer, especially if they end up requiring research or figuring out a more complex plot.

  9. There’s one short story that’s remained imprinted in me as the peak to emulate. I read it years ago and I can still feel the sense of wonder it left my teenage self. I believe it’s by Asimov – about the discovery of a long lost civilisation. Its distruction was the star the magi saw.
    When I write short stories I can give sway to my obsessive compulsive need to weigh and consider each word – something kind of difficult when writing a 70000+ novel. The very shortness of it makes it possible to home in.

  10. Just snatched up your book. I’ve read enough of your books to know, I know, you know what you’re talking about. Thanks
    Annie

  11. A good short story can be magic. Two of my favourites are:
    Summer in a Day – Ray Bradbury
    First Flight – Mary Robinette Kowal
    The first has the emotional impact of being punched in the stomach and the second has the most beautiful and perfect ending.
    My thanks to both of them

  12. Jim, thanks for writing this book. I got your email, bought the book, and am halfway through it. I’ve been waiting for this one.

    I read several good reasons for writing short stories to add to your two (in the above responses). I would add that short stories are a great opportunity to practice a different style, genre, or voice.

    In the book, under the discussion of plot and “One Arc,” I was reminded of your book, WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE. When I began using the mirror moment to structure my character arc for short stories, I finally began having some success with contests and inclusion in anthologies.

    I’m eager to finish the book and gain some understanding on the difference between the shattering moment and the first doorway of no return in a novel.

    I would say to someone beginning to write short stories, read this book, VOICE, and WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE. The short story writer’s 3 book set – required reading.

    Thanks, Jim!

    • Thanks for the good word, Steve. One reason I wrote the book is that I had read 3 or 4 on short story writing in the past and they just didn’t work for me. I hope this little book is helpful to many writers wanting to write short stories.

  13. I have your book and hope to read it this week. I started out writing short stories and Woman’s World published three of my mini-mysteries. Back then it took me at least a week to write one…maybe now I could do it in a day…dunno. 🙂

  14. I started writing short stories in the 5th grade, published a few, too. I love writing them. Got your book, but haven’t started it yet – my kids from Florida are visiting.

    A few of my favorites:

    Hills Like White Elephants
    The Ransom of Red Chief, by O. Henry
    Haircut, by Ring Lardner
    The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson
    Like a Dog in the Street, by Lawrence Block

  15. I always found short stories much harder than novels because there’s no time to add all the ‘other things’ that race through my head. However, my first published works were romance short stories (another “surprise” because at that point in my burgeoning career, I hadn’t been reading romance).

    I had been an ardent reader of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and during a time when I was raising three little kids, the short story was about all the time I could spare.

    My most recent short story was done for fun as a thank you gift to my newsletter subscribers, and I’m thinking of a sequel.

  16. I like short stories. They were the first writing that I did, and it is much less complicated to write, but there is an art to it. I am just getting back into writing again, and it seems that I have forgotten much from my writing classes in college. I was excited to hear about your book, and I bought it as soon as I received your email about it. I still haven’t read it yet, but plan to very soon. Thanks for all your help! 🙂

  17. James, I just bought the Kindle version of your book. I’m not really a writer, but have fancied the idea of a short story. Plus my wife is a college english major so she’ll give me the straight dope about editing.

    Thanks,
    Phil

  18. The original short story (just under 12000 words by Daniel Keyes) “Flowers for Algernon” lit up all the circuits of my teen-aged consciousness and particularly awakened empathy.
    FFA is generally identified science-fiction but it is more mainstream imo. A stunning work of creativity, voice, emotion and more. It powerfully reveals aspects of humanity – both noble and ugly.
    The character journey/arc that the reader travels with Charlie Gordon is writing genius. Short story magic. My favorite among the many short-story masterpieces.
    Nice post. Thank you.

  19. Writing short stories helps you to focus. You leave out all the superfluous stuff that you don’t really need, and you get to the nitty gritty right away. Nor do you have to build up the story, you simply get to the point, and get on with it. And unlike a novel, which takes months to complete, a short story is done in a day or two + editing.

  20. Pingback: How to use multiple POVs

  21. Thanks so much for this timely post James. I’ve written a few short stories, which I am in the process of getting ready to send off. They are fun to write and I think are a great start for new writers. I agree what you say about intensity too. My longest short story I pretty much wrote in a day as there is one emotional scene that I had to get down, so I had no wish to spread that out any longer than necessary.

    I grew up reading a lot of Stephen King’s books and I especially enjoyed his short stories. Two that really stand out to me are ‘The Mist’ and ‘The Raft’. They certainly created an emotional response that still resonates to this day.

    I’m glad to hear about your book and have bought the Kindle version, so really looking forward to reading it. Thanks for all your wonderful advice. It’s much appreciated.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Debbie. I agree about King. His short stories and novellas are done of his next work. And interestingly, his short non-horror make the best movies, e.g. Stand By Me, Shawshank.

  22. I think short stories are fun. But also, in some ways, more difficult than longer pieces because they have to be so tight and do much in such a short space.

    As for ones I like, Cheever’s been mentioned. I like pretty much all of his stories. I really like Soldier’s Home by Hemingway and on the mystery front Red Wind by Chandler.

Comments are closed.