What I Know about Writing Short Stories After Having Written Four of Them

I know that there are 10,000 rivers’ worth of knowledge that I don’t have. People study the short story as an art form. They know about point of view and when to use which tense. They know about characters and conflict and a story needing an arrival. I don’t know any of that. I’m not even at the point where I know what I don’t know. This could be dangerous for some, but I’ve lived a long time in the world having just a screwdriver and a hammer but knowing there were lots of other tools out there. I have respect for the forest of tools I’ve never met.

But still having written four stories has taught me some things.

First, a story takes a good while to flower. It has to be planted, then sit a while, and then grow some shoots, and then get out of control. It needs to be trimmed – sometimes like a hedge and sometimes like a bonsai tree, depending. This means that you can’t be in a hurry. You have to give a story time to root, figure out how to make it substantial and permanent so when you say you are finished, the story agrees.

Second, you will think about the people in your stories at night when you are trying to sleep. You will say to yourself, maybe even out loud, “What’s Darla going to do next?” You’ll think about Darla a lot, what she wants, how she talks, how she could be brave most of the time but cowed by a too high bridge. After a while, Darla will start seeming like a friend. I never had an imaginary friend as a child but now Darla and I are having coffee every morning.

Third, a short story has to have a story, not just characters. What happens next is the fundamental question. So far in my fiction writing, because I don’t know what I’m doing or where a story is going to end up, I just think about what the character is going to do next and hope that the story unfolds in an interesting way. I took a class through the public library once that described all the parts of a story (which I can’t remember now) and I used that structure to write my first story. But now I just stumble along. Maybe the pros know where their stories will end up when they start but I don’t. I’m not there yet.

Fourth, there is absolutely no substitute for reading your story aloud to other people. A few days ago, I read a story I’m working on to my husband and two of our friends. They listened, jotted down notes as I read, and, at the end of the reading, zeroed in on where the story needed beefing up. They found the things that didn’t quite add up and suggested alternative interpretations of the ending. If she drowned, she would’ve been floating on her stomach. That is a powerful observation.

For years, I’ve written personal essays and memoir. I’m not out of material but I’m often bored by the material that presents itself. But I feel rejuvenated having taken up with Darla and the possibly drowning person. I am eager to make new friends.

9 Comments on “What I Know about Writing Short Stories After Having Written Four of Them

  1. I can’t believe that our paths crossed like this. I thought I was the only intelligent person who knew she could do something that she knew next to nothing about. Is it arrogance, self-confidence, or just a great big blind spot that doesn’t think I need to be taught anything but can learn it myself.

  2. LOVE THIS, JAN! Here’s to making new friends and not knowing what they are going to do next…
    Kind of like the rest of us. On a good day. (And, thanks for the suggestions!)

  3. How long is a typical short story? I have a piece I’ve been working on but not sure what the parameters are for a short story?

    • So funny – I googled that question a few weeks ago! So I’m no expert, for sure. Flash fiction – @500 words. Regular short story 1,509 to 3,000.

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