Bigger Isn’t Always Better, or Writing Short Fiction for Fun and Profit, Volume 3: Determining Your Story’s Scope

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There are so many different ways to categorize writers. Pansters and plotters, monogamists (writers who are more faithful to their one true manuscript than most people are to their spouses) and polygamists (writers with a girl—er, manuscript—in every port). And then there are what I like to refer to in my head as apartment-dwellers and land barons.

You know the types. Apartment dwellers, in the writing world, keep things simple. A kitchen, a living room, a bedroom and a bath. A hero, a heroine, an antagonist, and maybe the heroine’s best friend. One or two major plot lines, clean, simple character arcs. Everything is streamlined, because goddamn it, there’s just no room under the bed for anything else.

Land barons, on the other hand, inhabit sprawling estates, with multiple buildings, parlors on every floor, twelve guest rooms, maybe a stable for the horses, and a barn. Their manuscripts have a whole world of supporting characters, with everyone from the cashier at the grocery store to the kindly old lady in the house next door having a name, a goal, and an arc. Seven different plot lines interweave and intersect; subplots and themes lurk inside every page. There’s just so much room to spread out and stretch your legs!

And one of the easiest, fastest ways to tell which kind of writer you’re speaking to when it comes to this is to ask them if they write short stories. Your apartment dweller’s eyes will light up and she’ll go on and on about how they’re so much easier than novels! Your land baron, on the other hand, will bury her head in her hands and curse the gods.

Here’s the reason: apartment dwellers already know the secret to writing good short fiction, and it’s not just being less wordy. It’s this: simplify your scope.

The cold, hard truth is that a short story is not the place for intensive world-building or a large cast of characters or a plot that spans multiple decades. None of that is to say that you can’t immerse your reader in a unique world or have multiple characters or convey an arc that takes a little time. But you have to be judicious about it and narrow your focus to a few key elements and a few key scenes.

Everyone’s different, and writers whose styles tend toward the wordier side will not have the same results as writers who typically write more sparely. But in my experience, you can only afford a specific amount of complexity for any given format of shorter fiction.

Let’s follow my metaphor to its illogical conclusion, and compare these formats to apartments:

Studio Apartment (aka Flash Fiction – fewer than 1000 words): KISS, KISS, KISS. Keep. It. Simple. Stupid. You’ve got room for one to three characters and only one scene (maaaaaaaybe two, if you’re really compact) to get across whatever you need to say. Pick one point you want to make, one theme, and illustrate it by showing how it plays out in this tiny snippet of your characters’ lives.

One Bedroom (Short Short Story – 2000-4000 words): Okay, you have a little more room here, but you’re still going to have the most success with two to four characters, one to three scenes, and one major plot line / theme / conflict.

Two Bedroom (Medium Short – 5000-8000 words): Two to six characters and three to five scenes. Two characters can have real (if simple) arcs, and you can probably even fit in an internal and an external conflict. There’s really only room for one (maaaybe two) turning points, but you can actually start to do some more involved story-telling in this range, so long as you don’t get too ambitious with your scope.

Three Bedroom (Novelette – 10,000-15,000 words): Personally, I love this length, and I think you can do a lot with it. I’d still keep it to a couple major characters and a small handful of supporting ones, if you like, and only a couple of major conflicts and arcs. But you can really build up to a good climax and dark moment, and still pull everything back together before you type ‘The End’.

Townhouse (Novella – 18,000-40,000 words): Another favorite of mine. As long as you limit yourself to a handful of main characters and a only couple of turning points, you can do just as much with this as you can a full-length novel. There’s plenty of room for well-fleshed-out arcs, complex themes, and genuine conflict.

If you’re an apartment-dweller kind of writer, you already know what I’m talking about with all of this. If, on the other hand, you’re more of a land baron, consider trying your hand at shorter fiction as an exercise in learning compact story-telling and limiting your scope. Carve out just that part of your story and your world that encapsulates the very essence of what you need to say. No extras, no side plots, no characters that do not contribute directly to the heart of your message. I think you’ll be surprised by just how much you can do and how much your writing can benefit from letting all the extras go.

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