This month I attended a lecture presented by the animated and hilarious Paul Genesse, editor of the Crimson Pact Anthology series and author of the Iron Dragon series. In this lecture we learned the ins and outs of how to create a successful short story, and he should know, he’s had over a dozen published.
Here are some of highlights from the lecture:
First and foremost – the story can’t suck. The reader must feel engaged and emotionally connected right from page one. This might seem like stupid advice until you read several dozen stories that don’t capture the imagination. With books, readers are more willing to read several pages to see if they are going to like it. They have made an investment in either purchasing or finding the book at the library and because of this will try harder to like it. Short stories on the other hand, are short. If the first page isn’t interesting, chances are the rest of the story won’t be either.
One of the best way to engage the reader from the first page is to start the scene during a critical moment. If your story is going to start with a truck bashing through Stanley’s bedroom wall, you could start with Stanley waking to the noise and seeing the truck coming at him.
Stanley rested peacefully when suddenly he heard a terrific crash. There, coming through his poster of Van Halen was the front end of a truck. He struggled to free himself from the tangled bed-clothes but was too late. The truck lifted his bed and him and crushed them through the wall and into the adjoining bathroom.
Or, you could start here –
Gypsum dust and chunks of drywall rained down and the air smelled of diesel. Stanley tasted blood and when he wiped at the wetness on his head his hand came away red. A crumpled bumper hung inches from his face and someone he couldn’t see cussed and spat.
The two moments happen within moments of each other, but the second example strips away the fluff and buries the reader in the middle of the action. The second also pulls in the senses of sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound, which also makes for better, more immersive, reading. The goal is to make the reader care right from the beginning. It has to be immediate, drawing, and fast.
Although this is true with all writing, in short story writing it’s even more important to avoid telling and show everything. Become a “was” Nazi.
The beauty of short stories is that they are short and they can be FINISHED. That said, the first draft is going to stink, and that’s okay. One of the perks of short stories is that you can have lots of drafts. Think of your first draft as a summary, not a story. It tells you where everyone needs to go and why. In subsequent drafts you can go in and bring it all to life.
During the writing process be sure to consider the following:
Scope: Can your story be told within the confines of a short story or is it meant for something longer? If you need to go longer than your word count allows, double-check with who you intend to submit your story to if it’s alright. Usually they will be fine with longer stories if you have a good reason and they have room in the book.
Hooks: After the story is all figured out go back and tweak and add a few hooks to increase tension and keep the reader engaged.
Conflict and Tension: This has to be on every page, no exceptions. If there are passages that don’t further the story they have to go. This can’t be wishy-washy, it should be gripping.
Ending: These are tough. They can’t be predictable, too stupid, or silly. Plan on tweaking it over and over again until it reads right. That said, in horror writing you can get away with really horrible endings.
Number of characters: There should only be a handful, ideally 2-3. If there are too many characters, the reader can’t keep track of who is who. Also, each character needs space within the story to be introduced and described. It’s possible to have one character, but it’s hard. They won’t have anyone to talk to.
Point of View: A short story is a great place to experiment with a POV that you don’t usually write in. There is a greater emotional punch in writing 1st person which is why most shorts are written in it. The other option is 3rd person limited.
Try/Fail Cycle: Yes, this still exists in short fiction, it’s just condensed. If your character succeeds right away then the problem was trivial. Ideally there should be three failures before your character solves his problem.
Get Feedback: We write in a bubble and sometimes our ideas don’t transfer to the page as well as we think they have. This is where getting outside feedback is crucial. Readers will catch what you can’t because they can’t imagine anything than what’s written on the page. This feedback will open new opportunities for growth in your story. If you can’t get another reader to give feedback, the next best thing is to set the story down for a while and then read with it with fresh eyes. It is guaranteed you will find things that need tweaking.
To write short fiction successfully you must read it. Go to your library and find anthologies and educate yourself on what makes the stories successful. Think about short stories you’ve read that have stuck with you over the years. I’m sure everyone remembers the Little Match girl. It sticks with you because SHE DIES. One of the stories that has stuck with me ever since I read it is Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron.
You have to know what you want from your story. How do you want the character to change? What do they need to learn?
In the end it all comes down to one thing – writing the story that you want to tell. Write to please you, no one else matters. If you aren’t excited with your own work, it will show. Find that passion, that jewel of an idea, and go make something awesome.
Paul Genesse: I’m a fantasy author and registered nurse. My first novel, The Golden Cord, Book One of the Iron Dragon Series came out in hard cover in April, 2008 and became the bestselling novel my publisher has ever had. Book Two, The Dragon Hunters came out in May of 2009. I’ve sold a dozen short stories and counting, such as The Nubian Queen in Steampunk’d from DAW Books, and Almost Brothers in Fellowship Fantastic also from DAW Books. I’m also the editor of The Crimson Pact anthologies. Visit my website for all the gory details and to see maps to where the bodies are buried.
Just for fun, Paul was kind enough to hook us up with a free short story! Here’s the opening:
When I was a young man I sold a pair of Tasmanian tigers to a woman claiming to be the fourth wife of the Turkish emperor. Selling them was the worst moment in my life and I have often wondered if the price of my soul was indeed fifteen thousand British pounds. If I had kept the animals in Australia, perhaps I would not consider myself the man most responsible for the extinction of the entire species, though that is not the worst of my crimes.
To read the rest, go here!