I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the challenges of writing short stories. A good friend of mine who “thinks in novels” was wrestling with a story for a workshop application and asked for my help in cutting down her text. Workshop guidelines specified a maximum length of 6,000 words, and, at the time she requested my help, her story was hovering around 12,000 words. We spent a lot of time discussing what lines should be cut, what lines were critical to the story’s emotional and structural foundations, and what fundamental element made us realize that this text was a short story, instead of, say, a novella that would simply dissolve as that much language was pared away.
Our conclusion was that a successful short story is, essentially, an exercise in quickness and economy. If a novel is a sprawling mansion, a novella is a respectable ranch and a short story is a microhouse. The microhouse still need a roof and a floor and a way to get in—otherwise it isn’t a house at all, and visitors (readers) will be sorely disappointed—but the builder can’t waste any interior space. This means that in a short story by a good writer, every sentence will serve to propel the plot or reveal some new aspect of a character or offer a meaningful glimpse of the story’s emotional core. In a story by a great writer, one sentence will do all three.
I’m very aware of this need to stick to essentials when I’m drafting a story. Concision is one of the great challenges of short fiction but, to a writer like me, who slogs through first drafts and then lights up when it comes time to revise, also one of the great pleasures. My short story “Tiger Bright,” which is about 4,400 words in my collection The Thing About Great White Sharks and Other Stories, was originally 5,500 words. I was pleased to slash that story by nearly a fourth because the words I cut weren’t contributing to the story, they were obscuring it.
There is a real satisfaction that comes with eliminating unnecessary sentences and opening up contemplative space around the most important questions, images, and sensations in a story. One reason we engage with literature is to better understand ourselves and the people around us. When I am writing a short story and constantly asking myself “is this a critical line? What does it tell us about Mrs. X? What does it contribute to crisis Y?” I’m solidly engaged with the human motivations, desires, and experiences that brought me to literature in the first place.
Still, as my friend and I lamented, justifying each line can be difficult. It’s easy to fall in love with my own cleverness and grow attached to a particular turn of phrase. But there’s no room for mere cleverness in the microhouse. Empty lines, even pretty ones, are just extra soap dishes and third sets of sheets—clutter. A writer has to know when to stop culling, of course, so that the microhouse of story doesn’t become a featureless wooden box, cold and uninviting, and that is its own challenge. But done right, this distilling process crafts memorable narratives. Short stories may be small spaces, but, as my friend and I reaffirmed (in its final form her story weighed in at 5,300 absolutely critical, heartbreaking words) no less essential for their size.
-Rebecca Adams Wright
Thanks so much to Rebecca for her thoughtful post. Rebecca is on tour with her new book The Thing About Great White Sharks. Click the TLC Book Tours Banner below to learn more.