The Power of Short Story
Kathryn Elizabeth Jones
I began as a short story writer; sort of a jump in and tell folks about most aspects of my life as if my life really meant something.
And I was a terrible writer. At first. My family would read my stuff and quickly shove it inside their bookshelf, probably never to look at it again, though I’m not really sure if that’s true: I never dared–ask.
I spent 8 straight years writing daily. Some short story. Some article. And I got better; better enough to make a sale to a national magazine.
I’d made it.
I thought. It took years after that to finally get on a semi-roll. I never really made lots of money, but it did come, sort of like scattered showers on a hot day.
The best news is that I learned some things about short story writing that have prepared me for what was soon to come: novel writing.
But allow me to back up a bit.
Short story writing, in many ways, is more difficult than novel writing and I’ll tell you why:
1: Everything, and I mean everything including characters, setting, plot and dialogue must be in tip-top shape. Especially if you’ve been given a final word count, which you must follow from a magazine, every single solitary word must be in the right place. And that takes time and effort.
2. Tight writing means you must edit. And I mean editing anything extraneous, yes, even though it might be your best, most far-out, most inspirationally constructed sentence to date.
3. You must grab your readers with your first sentence. You don’t have a few pages to grab them. Here are some of mine:
“George Mahooney hated flies” (The Awakening of George Mahooney).
“Donny Rembler was the smelliest, dirtiest, ugliest little kid on the whole block” (Boy’s feelings were nothing to sniff at).
“It was a lantern, a three-sided golden bucket with windows and tracks of golden lines traveling through the glass”(Ratty Girl).
4. You must use your voice; not your neighbor’s voice, not your favorite author’s voice, but your voice. And this takes time. This takes patience. This takes writing and writing and writing again, over and over, until you wonder if you’ll really be any good. Take it from me, you will. Sure, you’ll also need to use your voice if you ever decide to write a novel, but in short story, the voice of the author (i.e. what then is the voice of your character) must be so distinct, so unique, so memorable as to create setting and place within just a few pages.
5. The ending must be wrapped in a tight package. It must feel right. The reader needs to think, “Well, that’s just as it should be.” If the ending is a surprise, it needs to be a realistic surprise, sort of like expecting to go out for ice-cream on a hot day rather than hot chocolate. Though a bit of twisting and turning should occur in the plot, a reader should not be left to think, “What?” Yes, I know some stories end this way, even some movies, but I, for one, do not want any of my readers to think that they’ve wasted their time reading my short story. The ending needs to make sense to them. It can be strange, and a little off the beaten path, but the ending must make sense and it must feel right.
A writer can learn a lot about writing when it comes to short story. Because short story writing causes a writer to think about the ‘story’ that must be created using less space, what they learn about characters, setting, plot, dialogue, editing, first sentence construction, voice and ending and will do everything to assist them in the future, whether that future includes more short stories, a memoir about their life, or even, dare I say it, that never-to-be-forgotten first published novel.