I was recently asked by my friend and intrepid game designer, Ed Jowett, if I’d like to do a guest spot on his development blog. My initial reaction was something close to “seriously, you want me to give advice to real live people?” There’s not much that I adore more than writing a good story but when it comes to handing down wisdom I wasn’t sure that I had much to offer… and then I started typing.
Six hundred words later and I’d only covered the “getting started” part of my advice. It turned out I had more to share than I initially thought. So, instead of dragging you along through the entire process that I go through when I write a short story I’ve decided to break this down into the very first step of that journey.
Choosing the right moment to center your piece. Or, as I like to call it “Where am I and how did I get here?”
Finding the best place to start is the most important part of my process. A short story is different from a novel in many ways, length only being one of them. For this article I’m going to be referring specifically to short stories written in under 2,000 words. In something this size, you don’t get three hundred pages to tell your reader how the macroeconomics of Flibberty Jibbet are the entire lynch pin of why your main character grows up to be a xenophobic cop hell bent on revenge. Ok, that’s a nasty long example but I hope you get my point. The first thing to remember about a short story is just that… it’s short. This entirely dull revelation brings me to my first bit of advice.
Your short story should be like a child’s magnifying glass.
Maybe you’ve got this really fabulous idea for a story but the world you’ve made and the events you’ve created bust out of your target word count. Your writing muse went into overdrive and now what should be a simple action grabbing story is feeling more like George R.R. Martin’s never finished 6th book. You’ve got two options. Option 1 write out that bad boy and call yourself an agent. Option 2 get out your magnifying glass and start peeling apart your world.
When considering your starting point, imagine that you’re looking through the massive cityscape that is your world to try and find one small event which makes it all come together or highlights some very pivotal moment. There should be some deeper meaning or relevance to what you choose. To ferret out these potentially great moments, break your story into parts.
If you look at a broad cross section of a story you’ll notice three main acts.
Act 1 World building and character establishing stuff. None of that’s going in… toss it.
Act 2 Escalation of danger, challenges and hopefully some shattering change with possibly the darkest turn of events. This is short story gold mine… pocket that for later.
Act 3 The showdown where everything is revealed. Some good fodder… save only the best parts.
Optionally The epilogue where everything is back to normal. Obviously terrible… never use this bit!
By dissecting your story into these parts you can start to drill down deeper into where you want your events to explore. Is this one afternoon set in Act 2 or a collection of minutes that whiz by in Act 3? How far you dig and expand the timeline is up to you.
We’re not covering the entire fall of Rome; just the point when the first or last brick hit the ground.
Here’s an example of how I peel apart a story:
- A fresh recruit’s first day exploring her new position on a starship
- That same recruit taking unsteady command of the helm as the captain gives orders.
- The first inkling of something wrong in the ship’s design and our recruit now has to fight to maintain control.
- An explosion somewhere in the ship because of the faulty design. Our recruit is barely hanging on as officers scramble to help the wounded.
- In a moment of chaos, the deck is a confused jumble and as the smoke clears our recruit realizes all her training hasn’t prepared her for taking command after the death of the captain.
The closer you set your magnifying glass, the more emotion you tend to convey.
Now that you know the exact moment you’ll be placing your story, all the rest of the fun can begin. You get to decide if this is a third person story; great for showing a team of soldiers working together. Or, a first person story; perfect for small nuances and hiding things from your reader. You also get to decide if you’ll end your story with either a cliff hanger, the revealing of a secret, or a sudden surprise or twist. Options abound!
Writing short is a rewarding experience where every single word makes a difference. Paying close attention to how and where you choose to focus is the first step to making a good short story a killer one. Throw me a message and show me what amazing short stories you’ve created, I’d love to read them!