1. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    16,133
    Likes Received:
    17,801
    Location:
    Scotland

    How do you make the switch from novels to short stories?

    Discussion in 'Short Stories' started by jannert, Apr 15, 2020.

    I have been trying hard to figure out how to write a short story. I have only written novels, and my brain does not seem to want to engage with a shorter, snappier story with a focused purpose.

    I look at prompts, and my brain goes completely blank. I can't imagine writing a story about THAT, etc. It usually involves some clever trick at the end, doesn't it? A 'twist.' I haven't a clue, frankly. I've also seen the other kind, which I'd call 'vignette' that is simply a description of somebody doing something ...the end. What's with that?

    What's the trick? Has anybody else made the jump? I know lots of people who write short stories and want to try their hand at a novel ...but I don't know anybody going the other way.

    Any tips from those who have been there, done that?
     
    Hammer and deadrats like this.
  2. Xoic

    Xoic Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    1,108
    Likes Received:
    1,471
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    I don't know if this is anything like what you're looking for, but I recently searched for structures of short story (as opposed to novels and novellas etc). What i found is the they can use the same kind of structure as a novel but greatly abbreviated, and in fact you need to only imply certain parts. Often some parts take place outside of the frame of the story, in backstory. I'm referring to things like the inciting incident, maybe the rising action or turning points. Often in a short story you begin very near the climax and just imply much of the earlier stuff.

    Also, often the ending is just a change in attitude, understanding or belief in the MC.
     
  3. Homer Potvin

    Homer Potvin Pimpin' ain't easy, but it sure is fun.... Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 8, 2017
    Messages:
    5,891
    Likes Received:
    11,368
    Location:
    Rhode Island
    The trick is get in and get out as quickly as possible. And to use the word count to your advantage. All tricks, gags, and cliches are on the table. No need to explain things because the reader won't be around long enough to ask questions. One dimensional characters don't have time to be exposed, and plot holes don't have much time to develop. I mean, they do, but the reader spits the gum out before the flavor is gone, if that makes any sense.

    The two stories I wrote for the contests started as one-off gags. One was the idea about a old lady drug lord who used a meat packing business to move her product. The other was about portraying Cupid as a seedy nightclub owner who carried a gun instead of a bow. Both of those ideas would have been a pain in the ass to stretch across a novel... too much time for the gag to be exposed without filling in all the backstory, character development, plot arcs, and all that other crap that ruins good ideas. But over 5000 words? Gag, joke, gag, joke, serious scene, gag, joke, turn, gag, gag, ending.
     
  4. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 7, 2016
    Messages:
    3,978
    Likes Received:
    3,234
    Hey @jannert -- So, you're coming over to the dark side of short story madness. LOL. Good for you. You know, I think the prolog you sent me is very much like a short story.

    I actually wrote a novel before I got into short story writing. If you take a chapter and think, okay, this is the whole world, and then make what happens before and after somewhat predictable or unnecessary to what's going on, you have a short story. I don't think a story has to fit into fifteen or twenty pages. It just has to written in fifteen to twenty pages. With short story writing, the story is always bigger than what's on the page. That's something that's fun to play around with and important to remember.

    I do agree with starting as close to the end as possible. I recently wrote a bank robbing story. I started with the robbery and ended with a twist. It was an okay story, not great. And everyone tries a bank robbery story at some point so you want to be fresh with it. Scratched the whole thing and started with the twist. My God did it do something great. It changed everything and made a better story. Short story readers aren't looking for suspense and a twist at the end. Sure, you can do that and there are some writers that do it well. But that's not what a short story has to be.

    You've read a few of my stories and I think it's clear that I focus on pretty mundane things. I'm just saying there is more than one way to make a short story interesting and a good read. Your writing is already so rich and I know you read short stories (sometimes at least). I think you have what it takes. I'm happy to look over anything. Why don't we try something off the same prompt and do a trade? I'm not too big on prompts, but I don't think you should hate them. They can be fun. Let's do this, @jannert!
     
    J.D. Ray, jannert and Xoic like this.
  5. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 7, 2016
    Messages:
    3,978
    Likes Received:
    3,234
    And I have to post this because it's really the best piece of writing advice probably ever.

     
    Xoic likes this.
  6. Xoic

    Xoic Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    1,108
    Likes Received:
    1,471
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    ^ Transcripted:

    1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

    2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

    3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

    4. Every sentence must do one of two things— reveal character or advance the action.

    5. Start as close to the end as possible.

    6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

    7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

    8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible, to heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
     
    Vaughan Quincey, deadrats and jannert like this.
  7. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    16,133
    Likes Received:
    17,801
    Location:
    Scotland
    The only thing is ...all of the first 7 apply to novels as well. Possibly number 8 is the one that could illustrate the difference. I'll ponder it. Possibly number 5 as well, although that does also apply to novels—or at least it's the advice novelists often receive.

    I know I can write. I know I can construct a story, because I've done it. I can create characters the reader can root for. BUT I don't know how to do that in around 5,000 words—and have that be 'the end.' I mean I can write a 5,000-word chapter, no bother. But that's not a complete story. Not quite, anyway. I still need to understand the difference. There's something that's not quite clicking in my brain. If I get an idea for a story, my tendency is always to expand it. Maybe if I pretend I'm only writing one chapter? And that there's more that came before, and more that would come afterwards ...even if I don't write it? I do try to construct my chapters to have a beginning, middle and an end.

    @deadrats - I don't really 'want' to write a short story; I just think I ought to be able to. I feel it's a bit of a mental block for me. I'd be willing to give a shared prompt a go. But I must admit I'm not looking forward to the experience. I really hate prompts. But I could give it a try. If I'm going to move forward, I need to let go, don't I?

    Anyway, send me an idea, and give me a clue?

    And thanks so much to everybody— @Homer Potvin ,@Xoic and @deadrats. You've all given me something to think about. And you're all obviously experienced. Much appreciated. Old dog=New tricks? We'll see.
     
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2020
    deadrats and Xoic like this.
  8. Xoic

    Xoic Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    1,108
    Likes Received:
    1,471
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    I'm mostly experienced at working on story ideas and writing parts of them. I've only finished a few, mostly short stories and mostly long ago, and I wouldn't say they were very good. I didn't understand story then. So consider me one of those people who go around slinging advice that they've read about and thought about but not really practiced yet. I just read your first workshop entry and you're a far better writer than I am.
     
    jannert likes this.
  9. A.M.P.

    A.M.P. People Buy My Books for the Bio Photo Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 30, 2013
    Messages:
    2,160
    Likes Received:
    1,365
    Location:
    A Place with no History
    Is pneumonia contagious?
    I thought it was fluid build up due to a bronchial infection.
     
  10. Xoic

    Xoic Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    1,108
    Likes Received:
    1,471
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum
    Stop. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.00. You must journey through the metaphorest and learn the usage of double meanings.
     
    J.D. Ray likes this.
  11. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    16,133
    Likes Received:
    17,801
    Location:
    Scotland
    Thanks for reading that! I just checked it myself, when I saw you'd done it.

    Interestingly, that piece ended up as a flashback in the middle of one of my novel's chapters. Another character asked the adult Jessie about how her brother Rob had met his wife, and rather than have us experience the story second hand, via Jessie 'telling' it, I thought I'd just use a flashback and let the reader experience it first hand, so to speak.

    This is what I mean about pretending to write a chapter. I think that approach might work for me. I'll tell myself 'it's just a chapter,' and maybe that will be the breakthrough. I don't need to try to be too clever, do I?
     
  12. Naomasa298

    Naomasa298 Senior Member

    Joined:
    Sep 9, 2019
    Messages:
    1,788
    Likes Received:
    2,011
    Location:
    The White Rose county, UK
    I don't get vignettes either, but as far as short stories go, the ending doesn't need to be a "twist" per se, but an unexpected ending. That part of it can be extremely minor. You've read some of my stories - the war story ended with a "twist" that was only one line, "You look like you see a ghost". That's all it needs. I did something similar in Zasshiki-Warashi, which again, really only includes the twist (such as it is) in one line.

    The first thing I think you need to do is find a story length that is comfortable for you. Short stories vary enormously in length - my comfort zone is 2000-3000 words.

    Obviously, a short story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the challenge is to do that in the short space you have. Here's a tip - start at the end. Think about how you want the story to end and write that first. Make it no more than a couple of hundred words. Then you have to get there.

    A short story can be one scene. Look at @Iain Aschendale's "Line of Succession" in the sci-fi section for a great example. If your story is a multi-scene one, plot them out carefully. You don't really have time to weave multiple plot threads (although you can).

    Think about it as steps. In a novel, you can take little steps towards the end, but in a short story, you have to take long strides. That doesn't mean the scene has to be fast paced, but each one has to advance towards the goal.

    When I wrote "Value Judgement", I plotted it with six scenes in mind, something like this:
    Introduce characters and setup
    Robot is tested (explain the Three Laws of Robotics)
    Robot is demonstrated
    Car crash, robot saves Ceo
    Court scene
    Denouement (Aftermath) - this is the bit I didn't do terribly well in that story

    The reason I didn't end this story well is that I didn't have a clear ending in mind when I started it.

    I'm currently writing a story about an evil toaster. I wanted to write a horror story and the first thing that popped into my head was "a toaster". Don't ask me why. I don't even eat a lot of toast. But it seemed like a good challenge.

    Have you read Stephen King's Carrie? If you have, compare it with Isaac Asimov's short story "Sally", which essentially has the same theme, and see how the two differ in getting from A-Z.

    Lots of generic advice and rambling, but I hope it helps some!
     
  13. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    16,133
    Likes Received:
    17,801
    Location:
    Scotland
    Some really good points in that generic ramble! I like the idea of writing the end first. In fact, endings are usually very easy for me. Endings to scenes, chapters and the novel itself. It's the bloody beginnings I struggle with. Where to start, where to start. I always want to go back to 'I was born, then I went to school....' I've learned (to some extent) to truncate that as much as I can. But it still doesn't come naturally.

    I'm already beginning to see a way forward, thanks to what you said and what the others have said. I think I need to start where the important bit starts. Forget all the background material, the buildup, the whys and wherefores, the slow character development. Just jump in. Yeeks....

    I think I'll always be a small-stepper, not a strider. But I can take a big leap first, can't I? :)
     
    Naomasa298 likes this.
  14. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 7, 2016
    Messages:
    3,978
    Likes Received:
    3,234
    You've got this, @jannert! :)
     
  15. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Benevolent Ochlocrat Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2015
    Messages:
    14,398
    Likes Received:
    28,153
    Location:
    Seat 29e, Air Gradia 452
    This is interesting because I'm in the opposite dilemma: How do you write a longer story?

    When I was young (I mean, high school young) my writing tended to be that of someone in love with words but with no clue how to write an actual story. I'd have pages and pages of descriptions of storms and cliffs and windswept cloaks and nothing nothing nothing of note.

    Fast-forward thirty years and I learned about Flash Fiction. Here you go, tell a story in a thousand words or less. Or five hundred words or less. The place I ended up writing for was horror-themed so had a limit of 666 words.

    In Flash, and to a lesser degree in short stories, you've got to make effective use of your tropes. You don't have time to lavish words on detailed descriptions of people and places, you've got to drop in just enough that your readers will automatically fill in the details from their repertoire of stored tropes. In Line of Succession which was so kindly mentioned by @Naomasa298 , I counted on the readers to be familiar with Casablanca even if that familiarity was at a remove. Once they saw a seedy bar filled with people from different nationalities up to shady business, they'd do the rest of the world-building for themselves. Likewise in Watching (I'm citing my own story only because I knew exactly the thought processes that went into it) I created a solidly middle-class environment in Anytown, USA through the use of character names (Emma and Todd. I spent ages debating Todd's name to show that he was whitebread), the fact that Emma sleeps in a crib, has an array of dolls, that mom has to fill out forms for school, and finally that sending the daughter to counseling is just a natural thing to do. 498 words and I hope you think there's a Volvo in the driveway and one of those fancy exercise bikes in the furnished basement.

    And for me things are going exactly opposite. When I think about expanding Line of Succession into a novel and wonder how, I realize that each chapter is just another short story in an ongoing series. The next thing I need to write is the short story about how they go to breakfast, see the news, Jasmine panics, and the bar gets destroyed. Then there's the short story about the chase out of the city. Then there's...

    Gotta get writing today I think. But if you look at any popular fiction (I'm going to go to movies as we have the most overlap in them) they're composed of short stories. The Mos Eisley Cantina in the first Star Wars could be a short story by itself, as could the whole "I am your father" fight scene in the later movie. The scene in Dragonheart where the lake is too shallow, or rather that whole scam sequence, could be a good short story. The Robin Hood mythos is a series of short stories. So yeah, take a scene or shorter series of scenes and ask yourself "Could this stand alone?" I'll be you find out that it can.
     
    J.D. Ray, jannert and Naomasa298 like this.
  16. Xoic

    Xoic Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 24, 2019
    Messages:
    1,108
    Likes Received:
    1,471
    Location:
    edge of the spacetime continuum

    Yes, that's obviously the Cantina Sequence from Star Wars (retroactively re-titled Episode 4, A New Hope).
     
    Iain Aschendale likes this.
  17. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Benevolent Ochlocrat Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2015
    Messages:
    14,398
    Likes Received:
    28,153
    Location:
    Seat 29e, Air Gradia 452
    But I think the Cantina itself draws on Casablanca, which is fine.
     
    J.D. Ray and Xoic like this.
  18. peachalulu

    peachalulu Member Reviewer Contributor

    Joined:
    May 20, 2012
    Messages:
    4,388
    Likes Received:
    3,315
    Location:
    occasionally Oz , mainly Canada
    I never thought I could write a short story. I thought if my ideas couldn't be expanded into novels they weren't worth writing about. And I think in order to break that barrier you do have to write one. And all the advice in the world won't really prepare you. Cause really I still don't know how I do it. But I can do it.
    I have even gotten to a point where I can tell when not only is an idea more for a short story I can actually admit one of the books I wrote would make a better short story than a novel. Even the finished novel I have now.

    Short stories can contain a twist or trick at the end I know a few of mine do but mainly I try to build up to an unfinished idea that the reader must sort out rather than a gotcha. For the Worms of Wicher Woo I wanted a sense of justice and freedom, for Not Pink redemption, for Only Ten - hope in the face of probable doom, Santa and the Snowman of Doom - sacrifice. I think I took this idea from Norma Fox Mazer I loved her YA short story collections as a child and they always kinda trailed off on the end, they remind me of independent movies, not big plots, just character slice of lifes.

    I usually pick ideas that I don't know how to expand. If you have a good character or idea and no plot that could be grounds for a short story. When I do a short story I focus on a few key scenes (nuggets) that I want to highlight or on an angled narrative. One of the short stories I'm working on right now encompasses years but there's a swift narrative to it that I knew I couldn't prolong into a novel. Nor did I feel the characters really warranted a novel. There's not many dialogue scenes and I felt that by expanding it I could actually cheapen the impact of the idea. It's like a novel with filler scenes taken out.

    I used the prompts here to generate a few good stories - The Worms of Wicher-Woo was from the baroque prompt, Not Pink - the sci-fi contest, Only Ten - our anniversary contest - Cockroach Apocalypse - I'm not sure. The Inheritance - on an inheritance prompt.

    I really fly by the seat of my pants when I short story write - there's no character, plot, or anything except some ideas and images in my head when I start. Sometimes I even use dreams. I think by not sorting it all out I'm able to take this vision and allow it to peak and sort itself out within ten to twenty pages giving me a nice short story. By thinking about it too much I'll want to craft it into something more.
     
  19. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    16,133
    Likes Received:
    17,801
    Location:
    Scotland
    Thanks, @Iain Aschendale and @peachalulu. I'm always intrigued by reading how other writers approach things. Especially two writers whom I have 'read,' and enjoyed their work.

    I'm quite intrigued/surprised at Peach's approach. It's the opposite of what I would have expected, actually. Start writing a short story with no firm idea of where it's going? That's amazing. I thought short stories had to be pretty much worked out from the beginning. Otherwise they would turn into a novel! I tend to pants a novel (heavy editing afterward) and I assumed I'd need to plot a short story ...but she does the opposite. And it certainly works for her! Maybe the fact that she didn't know where they were headed is why her stories are so deliciously unpredictible. That's turning what I thought I knew on its head.

    The story of Iain's that I remember best (although I've forgotten its name) is the one about the skydivers. I remember being caught up in that story, the way I like to get caught up in a novel, and being amazed at how the unexpected twist at the end enriched the story and turned it in a direction I didn't expect at all. It was a rich story that felt 'novelistic' to me ...but he did the trick I'm thinking of trying. He started with a dilemma, but didn't take a long time to explain it. He kept the cast of characters short. The characters developed, the way they would in a novel's 'chapter,' but the ending did seem to wrap it all up.
     
    peachalulu, Xoic and Naomasa298 like this.
  20. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale Benevolent Ochlocrat Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Feb 12, 2015
    Messages:
    14,398
    Likes Received:
    28,153
    Location:
    Seat 29e, Air Gradia 452
    I can't even tell you how that got written anymore. On my old forum, @Dogberry's Watch used to post the prompt of the week. No contest, no deadlines, no limits, no requirement that you even mention you had used it.

    One week she posted something like "Write a story with a character you haven't used before, and send them to Niagara Falls."

    Everything I'd written up to that point had been Flash, and it had all been horror. I resolved to write a story without a length limit (I though 1500 was a magnum opus and ended up at about four and a half K), that wasn't horror, and had a female viewpoint or MC. It was just a challenge to myself from myself. For some reason I thought of BASE jumpers and started looking at jumping from the observation deck below the falls but IIRC it isn't tall enough. I ended up learning everything you can about free-fall skydiving, BASE jumping, and wingsuit flying from the comfort of your own home, even joined a skydiving forum like this one and asked questions about plausibility in their Lounge. I did get help in that one of their members volunteered to read my work for technical accuracy but the only adjustments they made were in a couple terms I'd used incorrectly. I 3D modeled the final jump using screenshots of aerial photographs of the Falls, data from Wikipedia on their dimensions, information on wingsuit and parachute glide path ratios, and a 3D CAD program that I normally use for my hobby stuff.

    But in all that I did work backward from the end. Lauren was going to jump over the Falls somehow, and she was going to do it in honor of her man who had died. Olaf's death was based on a real accident and was almost Johnny's, but I thought that would be too obvious. Everything else I had to hammer out bit by bit, scene by scene, line by line, and I really don't remember what the inspirations for the various sub-points were.

    My aunt said it read like a horror story anyway :)

    NF.jpg
    drop zone small.png
    DZ1.jpg
     
    peachalulu, Xoic, Naomasa298 and 2 others like this.
  21. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 7, 2016
    Messages:
    3,978
    Likes Received:
    3,234
    When you tell someone a story, let's say someone you don't really know, you don't start at the very beginning of your life or even a week before the story that you are telling this person starts. And you don't keep going when the story ends to bring them up to speed with your life. Sometime (and I think most of the time) a story can exist on it's own. I think the Vonnegut advice about readers being able to finish a story if cockroaches eat the last few pages is important. If you tell a good story, readers will be able to imagine what comes before and after even if it's not on the page.

    I think a chapter in a novel is often quite different from a story. In chapters you want a few loose ends that pull the reader into the next chapter. Maybe they can't or shouldn't be able to guess what happens next. Some novel chapters stand alone and can be short stories. I've seen several published as short stories that say in the author bio they are part of a forthcoming novel. And I have a friend who sold three chapters each as short stories before selling her novel that will be out later this year. For me, as a short story writer, I had to remind myself I was writing a novel and not a story collection when I wrote my novel. I think the big difference is structure and especially the way you end a short story vs. a novel. Just remember the cockroaches. It's better to give the last few pages to the bugs than to go on for too long.
     
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2020
    Lifeline and jannert like this.
  22. Oopstrap

    Oopstrap New Member

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2018
    Messages:
    16
    Likes Received:
    12
    Hello,
    I am not an expert on the matter but the best piece of advice I have ever received was to limit your characters to one action. A novel is all about the details. A short story is all about the details that the writer never told us. I hope this helps!
     
    jannert likes this.
  23. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Mar 7, 2013
    Messages:
    16,133
    Likes Received:
    17,801
    Location:
    Scotland
    Not quite sure what you mean by 'one action.' Do you mean only one event, or only one significant thing that your character does? It sounds like an interesting piece of advice, but then I realised I didn't actually know what it meant. :)
     
  24. Seven Crowns

    Seven Crowns Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Apr 18, 2017
    Messages:
    712
    Likes Received:
    1,364
    For a 3000 word short? Think in terms of scene. Just aim for one. Two is possible, sure, and longer shorts will have much more. But aim for one at first.

    Don't try for a twist. Try for a revelation. It doesn't have to be the reader's. It can belong to the MC or the narrator or even the bystanders. You're not performing a feint at the end. Sometimes the end is inevitable and it's the new understanding of it that's important.

    Sentence-wise, you have to edit mercilessly. Find all the empty connecting phrases and shorten/delete them. Add in details that are unique and not just assumed. Not that you wouldn't edit in a novel, but you don't have words to spare here, so you have to be callous, almost rude with the draft. When you see any phrase that doesn't pull its weight, you end its career. WWTBD? (What would the Bobs do?)

    [​IMG]

    (But they promoted their darling to upper management . . . okay, some slackers survive. Make sure the rest of the company is lean.)
     
    J.D. Ray, jannert, Lifeline and 2 others like this.
  25. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 7, 2016
    Messages:
    3,978
    Likes Received:
    3,234
    I just want to say a lot can happen in twenty or so pages which is pretty much the average length of a short story. I'm a short story writer, actively selling (some). I'm not trying to write bare-bone stories. Honestly, if a story seems like it's bare bone and simplified, it's not likely to be a great story. I almost always have multiple scenes and/or settings in a short story. I'm also not skimpy when it comes to the number of characters. Details should be there to breathe life into the piece. Twenty pages gives you a lot of room to tell a story. I'm really not sure why people think the actual writing of a short story is any different than a novel. I think it's all about structure, which is learned best by reading feverishly.
     
    jannert, Xoic and Iain Aschendale like this.

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice