Writing Short to Write Stronger

Exploring the Craft

How writing short can sharpen your narrative.

Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them. Long fiction feels more like atmosphere: it’s a lot smokier and less defined. ~Paolo Bacigalupi

This, like most of this series, isn’t prescriptive advice. It’s me exploring the nature of SFF craft. I’ve written over a hundred short stories, which by most professional accounts, isn’t very many. As of this writing, I have two out on submission to professional markets and a mound of others rejected multiple times. But I’ve also self-published several that readers have told me they enjoyed.

Short SFF craft is something I work on a lot. I read it. I love it. I love how such a small narrative can explode to create entire worlds and capture entire relationships. While many writers think only in terms of the novel, there are others who make short fiction the focus of their career. There are some wacky myths associated with short fiction, particularly around speculative and fantastic fiction. I was once told you can’t write epic fantasy short stories. I took that as a challenge, and yes, you absolutely can write epic fantasy short stories.

Photo by David Menidrey on Unsplash

There was a panel on worldbuilding in short fiction at this year’s Nebula Conference. The panel agreed, you can convey anything in short fiction, you just need to find the right words because each word is more valuable. But in those few words, you can not only setup a mood and tell a tale, but you can convey an entire world.

Writing short doesn’t just train for economy, it also teaches how to convey emotions or moods in the most effect manner, not just the shortest.

I’ve read that the art of the short story is particular to the form. But that is not my experience. While the form demands techniques to support brevity, we can also use those techniques in novels. Writing short doesn’t just train for economy, it also teaches how to convey emotions or moods in the most effect manner, not just the shortest.

When an exhaustive play-by-play narrative will bog down the pace of a novel, a scene written as if it were part of a short story, and evokes an experience for the reader, pacing can be maintained while bringing the reader more with fewer words.

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

Working with some techniques:

  • Refer to an event in the past to reveal worldbuilding:
    • The Century of Misery, the wars of his his parents and grandparents generations, could visit his generation with a poorly worded letter between the two kings.
      • This gives a sense of history, how terrible life was for the character’s parents and grandparents. It tells the reader something about the current situation: at least two countries are at peace and that the peace is fragile.
  • Use the story title and character names to do some of the work:
    • Selkie Stories Are for Losers (by Sofia Samatar)
      • Tells exactly what the story is about (a selkie story) and gives us the character’s voice before we’ve even started reading.
    • Introduce a character using their full name and where they’re from:
      • Duchess Alice Bremway of the Alverines pranced through her gardens.
      • Oscar ‘Jammer’ Ridgeway hiked to the creamery, guiding his father’s oxen.
        • Both examples use the names to suggest social status, which suggests the world in which they live. Oscar’s nickname hints at an interesting story behind it. Places like a garden or a creamery solidify the social levels of the characters. All in a single sentence.
  • Find an evocative tag to represent something larger.
    • The house leaned in the manner of old farmhouses, always sagging; leaning but never falling.
      • The farmhouse describes not just that house, but the others nearby. The area is rural and old.

Poets try to produce an effect or experience in the reader using the deliberate choice of words, their sounds, and their shape on a page. All writing, long or short, can benefit from creating such effects. If a reader can imagine a deeper history, a wider world, or even reminded of a smell, the story becomes more real.

Here’s an exercise:

Try replacing a paragraph of description with a single sentence to get across the same information.

This is a sizeable chunk of my revision process. I want one image to convey who someone is, or where something is taking place. That single sentence will usually be much more effective than a paragraph of description. The restriction of writing short forces us to find more meaningful words; words that cause a reader to react, to see or feel something. The one thing we writers want to achieve above all others.


<a href="https://kevinjfellows.com">Kevin Fellows</a>
Kevin Fellows

I’m a poet and author of fantasy and speculative fiction. My debut novel At the End of the World is available now. You can find my poetry in the Star*Line Summer 2020 issue, and at Free Verse Revolution.

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