A short story has less to do with length than it does with form. Short stories can be as long as 30+ pages or as short as a few sentences. The shortest story I ever published was just 96 words (Long Story Short, UNC Press, 2009: My Family p. 88).
Short stories are human in scale. They are not grand and sweeping or epic. Short stories are not short novels. In some ways they are more about the ordinary than about the extraordinary. They are generally about how one decision changes not only the situation, but the main character, as well.
Short stories are character driven.
In this character-driven literary world, it’s important to remember that it is often not the decision so much as the character making the decision that shapes the story.
For example: The main character decides to wear a red dress to her sister’s wedding. Depending on the character, wearing a red dress to the wedding could be just a moment of flamboyance, a kind of coming out for the main character (the wearer of the dress). Or, it could be an act of defiance against a family’s code of conduct. It could also be a way to grab attention away from the bride.
A good short story makes the writer, as well as the reader, dig deeply into the main character. When you start to write a short story, it is more important to understand who your character is and what motivates him/her, rather than to know where the story is going.
I once met a carpenter who liked to put together 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, working from start to finish with all of the pieces face down. He enjoyed the challenge of creating something without knowing what it should look like when it was finished.
Writing a short story is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what it is supposed to look like.
So, where do you start?
Some people start with an idea for a story and then create a character to play out that idea. Others start with a situation that is going to force a character into making a decision (Roald Dahl was a master of this method, as is Stephen King) and create a character that will be challenged by that situation. I often start with just a vague notion of where I’m going with a character I just met.
I call this my WWMCDT? (What Will My Character Do Today?) method. This is how it works for me. I like to collect characters: people I overhear in the grocery store talking on their cell phones, waiters at restaurants reciting the daily specials, politicians and preachers saying ludicrous things to the press, or the elderly woman at the swimming pool locker room today who was giving away radishes because she had to buy the whole bunch in order to have “just a taste of springtime in her salad,” knowing when she bought the bunch that her husband would refuse to eat the radishes. I collect them all.
Once I have a character clearly in my mind, I spend some time with them. I think about how they got to where they are and what they would do under various other circumstances. I puzzle over where they fit into the world and what they might want.
When I write about them, I let them take the lead. I try my best to listen to their voices and let them be. I try hard not to put words into their mouths…words they wouldn’t say. I follow them around. And, if I’m lucky, they take me down a story path where they will stop in the shadows of the narrative long enough to make a decision and change their lives.
I think about that bunch of radishes and the decision not only to buy them, but also to give them away because the woman’s husband wouldn’t eat them.
The impulse to buy the radishes knowing her husband won’t eat them is the decision that builds the story. The heart of the story lies not only in wanting something your husband doesn’t like, but also in having to give what you want away.
NEXT: GETTING DOWN TO THE EMOTIONAL TRUTH