Welcome to the Writers’ HQ Intro to Short Fiction five-part masterclass-blog-series thing of your dreams! In which we bombard you with ideas, strap a parachute to your back, throw you out of the aeroplane of creativity and watch you spiral gently to the ground with a proud tear in our eye.
Over the next five blogs we’ll cover important short fiction-y stuff like:
- How do you know how long a short story is actually meant to be?
- And how do you turn the most mundane anecdote into a story full of intrigue and conflict?
- How do you drill down to the ‘fundamental human truth’ of a story?
- How do you redraft and restructure and rework an idea until you find the *right* one?
- And how do you make characterisation the juicy, emotive centre of a story?
All this and more – plus some stellar short fiction examples and expert advice from authors like Paul McVeigh and Kit de Waal. Ready? Yeah you are. Let’s get cracking.
Part 1: How long? How short? What even is a short story?
Let’s start with the two most commonly asked questions in short story writing:
- How long does it take to write a short story?
- How long should a short story be?
Number 1 is, frankly, unanswerable, but watch Paul ‘Short Fiction’ McVeigh give it a go…
As for question 2, uh, lemme pass you a piece of string for the proverbial dilemma.
If you want to get technical about it, there’s a whole bunch of different ‘categories’ of short fiction based on word count, ranging from Twitter fiction (140 characters) to Nano (<55 words), Drabble (<100), Micro (<300), Flash (<1,000) and Longform (1,500+), but pretty much anything this side of a novella can happily come under the umbrella of ‘Short Story’, though most top out at 6,000 words.
(An aside: Flash has been growing in popularity over the last few years and with very good reason. It’s quick and dirty and forces you to condense an idea into a succinct, impactful little piece. There’s no room for waffle or prosaic bullshitting in a flash. Flash fiction is efficient. Flash fiction should slap you like a wet fish and linger like an old knee injury; it might contain a single moment or cover an epic sweep of generations; it might read like a narrative poem or it might be structured like a formal letter; it might take place entirely inside the head of a central character or it might hover above with omniscient insight; it might be about something as commonplace as buying a pint of milk or it might skew off into an abstract world of magical realism. And, unlike a novel, or even a lengthier short story, flash fiction gets in and out with minimal fuss but maximum effect. It is, in essence, the perfect antidote to our overly rushed lives. Ahem. Love note to flash: OVER.)
Getting back on track, the short answer (boom boom) is: a short story is as little or as long as it needs to be.
So now that we’ve got that out of our system, stop worrying about length or classification and start thinking about WHY we tell short stories.
“Most stories we tell in real life are under 500 words. You’re at a party, everyone has a glass of wine, and suddenly you have the floor. You throw out your little story like a grenade. ‘Once I knew a guy who…’ And if you have any social graces at all, you probably keep it under 500. So my advice would be this: Don’t get all up in your head thinking short-short stories have to be poetry without the line breaks. Don’t put on your beret. Just tell a story, an actual story. Quick, while they’re still listening.” – Rebecca Makkai
Short fiction is steeped in the tradition of oral storytelling like a tea bag that’s been left in too long.
Fables, parables, fairy tales, myths and legends – even ghost stories round the camp fire – we’ve been sharing and listening to them since we were yay high. The Chinese definition for this style of short fiction translates to ‘palm-sized’ or ‘smoke-long’ – a story that can be told in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette.