Authors soon learn that there is an art to keeping a story short. Contests and anthologies usually have strict wordcount requirements, and if we want our piece to be considered, we must ensure it follows the stated rules.
What are the requirements of the contest or publication you are considering submitting a piece to? If you have no specific contest in mind, 2000 to 4000 is a good length that will fit into most submission guidelines.
For this exercise, we will plot and write a story of only 2000 words in length.
Writing a story that short can be a problem for those of us used to writing novels. You know what the story is, but after a short while of writing, you find you have gone way beyond 2,000 words. Mapping your story in advance gives you a framework to go by and helps limit unneeded growth.
We have to look at this as if it were the action scene for a longer story. The example I am using is from a fantasy short story I wrote for a contest in 2015, titled, A Song Gone Wrong.
In every story, you must choose your words with care, but the shorter the story, the more important word choice becomes. We choose words that convey power. In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and therefore carry more power.
Verbs are power words. Fluff-words and obscure words used too freely are kryptonite, sapping the strength from our prose. Placement of verbs in the sentence is critical.
Short stories are just like novels, in that they have an arc, and you can make it work for you. By looking at it from the perspective of the story arc, you can see what you have to accomplish, and how many words you have to accomplish it in.
Every word in this exercise is critical and has a specific task—that of advancing the plot. To that end:
The story: Our protagonist was a bit too specific when putting a local warlord's fling with another man's wife into a song. He is now a wanted man. Divide the story into four acts:
Act 1: the beginning: We have 500 words to show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation. This is only a few paragraphs!
Act 2: First plot point: We have 500 words to show the inciting incident.
Act 3.: Mid-point: We have 500 Words to show the dire condition.
Act 4: Resolution: We have 500 words to show how things work out.
Take a moment to analyze and plan what needs to be said by what point in the story arc, and in how many words. Once you have the map, you can get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good short story.
In order to have your work comply with wordcount rules and limitations, you must phrase your prose carefully. Use descriptive, dramatic, powerful words to convey what you want to say concisely in one or two sentences.
Pacing is critical. You must choreograph the rise and fall of the action, drama, and transition; the ebb and flow of conversations.
On-screen conversations are what conveys the personalities and the minimal backstory of the piece. Word space is extremely limited, so only new information can be discussed. The main character can't give anyone a recap of his troubles in the reader’s hearing—all that will have to be done off-stage. Distribute your exposition in small portions, delivered only when the reader and main character must know it.
After a few times of creating short stories this way, you won't need to think about it. When you know the length a given tale has to be, you can mentally divide it into acts and just write for fun.
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Connie J. Jasperson is a published poet and the author of nine novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.
Credits and Attributions:
Portions of this post were taken from Crafting the Very Short Story, by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2018, published 3 January 2018 for Life in the Realm of Fantasy.