Anyone who knows me knows that I love writing long novels, so it may be surprising that I also love writing short stories. That wasn’t always the case, however—in my earlier authorial years, I hated trying to condense my ideas into 2,000 words (the usual word limit for projects and contests). I even had a hard time when the word limit was bumped up to 3,000 or 4,000. But, slowly, my love for crafting short stories grew and helped me hone some skills that would have otherwise been forgotten in the sea of tome worldbuilding and plotting. Still, it’s tough to come up with a compelling idea that can be conveyed in only a few thousand words—how do you do it and do it well? There are three tips that have helped me over the years and that I hope will help you, too.
Start with a Clear, Dynamic Idea
Easier said than done, I know, but the starting idea is crucial for short story success. You only have several pages to develop character arcs, plot twists, or themes, so every page—every paragraph—needs to do the work of two or three of its novel counterparts. The best way to do this is to pick a strong starting point: a relationship with a lot of tension (whether internal or external), a problem that needs solved in a short time frame, a peculiar main character, a strange or dangerous setting, or a tragic or bizarre occurrence. For me, it’s often been helpful to use a photograph, song, or a collection of word prompts to help hone that beginning concept; since photos, songs, and single words convey a lot of meaning in a condensed format, it’s easy to translate that over into a limited amount of prose. Any method of developing a condensed story seed will work, however, as long as it’s poignant and dynamic.
Keep the Cast Small
This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule by any means, but remember that you have limited space within a short story—the more characters you try to cram into it, the less room you’ll have for meaningful arcs, interesting settings, themes, or unique stylistic choices. In my experience, it’s best to center a short story around one or two characters, and limit the “screen time” of any peripheral characters (though, the number of peripheral characters can vary, depending upon the nature of the story). This not only leaves room for other story elements, but it allows you to remain focused on the most important information, which is usually the most difficult part of keeping a story under a certain word limit.
Utilize a Unique Narration Style
One of the best ways to make a limited number of words pack the most punch is to use unique stylistic or narrative elements. If you’ve ever wanted to play around with 1st person instead of 3rd (or vice versa), sparse prose, short paragraphs, an unique main character or dialect, unusual formatting, or any other “artistic” method of writing, short stories are the perfect places to experiment. Not only is the commitment level lower (you don’t have to write 100,000 words in a specific dialect, for instance), but the atypical narration or formatting adds another layer of intrigue and helps each paragraph carry more interest.
Though these tips are written specifically for stories with very limited word counts, the same tips apply to longer short stories. The goal, regardless of word count, is to condense as much information, emotion, and meaning into the story as possible, remove unnecessary or optional elements, and polish and press the tale until it becomes its own little diamond.