Lately I've been focused on a self-imposed short story writing frenzy. So here are some of my thoughts on why short story writing is helpful.
1) World Building
In Fantasy writing especially, but also in any piece of fiction, the rules of “the world” dictate much about your characters’ actions. For fantasy, this can mean writing short stories that revolve around mytho-historic characters who may never appear in your Big Project. But knowing what forces turned a person into a myth, and more, can tell you a lot about the world in which your characters live. The more gray, the more complex your world, the more your characters will grow to reflect the society that shaped them. This makes the whole of your Big Project that more real and believable.
For literary fiction, world building takes on a different meaning. Each character has a different set of expectations of the world around d them. Go into the heads of minor charcter’s in the Big Project’s timeline, or even in the past. Use short stories in this manner to construct the relationships between your subset (family, community/etc) and their larger society. The placement of individual into the context of family, sub-culture, regional identity and national identity can begin to grant an understanding of the social norms for your charcter and how these things might not mesh with the general moral and cultural code of the larger society. Thus, you begin to create the shape of the world your character lives in.
2) Character Building
Another method is going into your charcters’ past and exploring the years and people in your Main Character’s life before the start of the story. This technique lets you explore the points in Main Character’s life that lead to his/her greatest strengths and weaknesses. Know where you Main Character’s insecurities stem from and why. Sometimes, knowing g the root of the character flaws will present you with the answer to how the Main Character can/should overcome the flaws over the course of the Big Project.
Also, these flaws can be cultural adaptive. Like a kid who’s life teaches him to distrust authority might survive longer in particular socio-cultural environments, but that same adaptive behavior might lead him to become a criminal when he’s an adult. Though he might not be a bad person despite it all, just a product of circumstances that he needs to leave behind.
Short Story plots are at a basic level quite simple. But mastery of the short story plot presents the gift of knowing how to write on multiple levels at the same time. Knowing how to craft a plot that hits more than one level is the key to misdirection in the Big Project. Misdirection is what allows you to surprise Reader with plot twists. Subtlety requires not only careful wording, but good plotting as well.
Don’t be fooled by the basic short story arc. While that may have been hammered into you in academic settings, the structure of a short story is perhaps hardest to write because of its simplicity. Learning how to pare down to the basics but avoid predictability, demands practice and skill. Writing many short stories, and completing them all, will help you know how to do this well.
4) Word, Sentence & Paragraph: Choice and Order
Short stories must be succinct. It is the nature of the beast. Words cannot be used to fluff the story. Sentence order and paragraph order build the rhythm of your story, and are signs of character, world, and plot. When writing a short story all of your structural crutches are condensed and become as noticeable as a glow stick at night, in a ghost town.
So you can see them better in a short story, which means that you can deal with them more directly. And while they might blend into you Big Project—the glow stick at the rave—it doesn’t mean you should keep it (the color might be horrendous, no matter the context). The process of purging your structural crutches allows you to develop a deeper understanding of story-structure. You begin to take note of the differences between how you think your story *should* be received, and how it really *is* received. Oftentimes this boils down to learning the interplay of word choice, senatnce structure and paragraph arrangement.
Together, well crafted with a plot and a gently portrayed character, you have an outstanding short story.
You can’t wax poetic in a short story. This goes a bit with #4, but description is often treated as a different category. Some rough drafts I’ve read seem to indicate that their authors think it’s ok to approach a short story in one of the following manners:
• “Ok, I need to paint a picture first.”
• “Oo, you haven’t forgotten where we were? Right? Let me add a sentence of pure description *here* to be certain.”
• “The character, wait! You don’t have an image? Let’s take a break so I can tell you how he/she looks.”
They don’t work. Not one of them. Not because Reader is opposed to seeing anything you want to paint, but because all of these approaches lead to frivolous words. The author that needs to take time out of the story to describe a setting or character is prone to providing panoramas to their viewers. The eye takes in more than it can process, yes? So when we create a panorama and then squeeze into a tiny corner, we are not presenting the story in a manner Reader would experience it if Reader were really inside the story. Rather, we are presenting a short story like a movie. The advantage that a story has over a movie is the ability to put the reader into the action; feel what the characters feel, see what the characters see. Reader does not need to see *more* than what Main Character sees, especially not in a short story. But in real life we don’t catch every detail when posed with a panorama, so why should Reader in a short story?
Description woven into story, character, plot, etc—is a word here and there. It is carefully crafted to create an image in Reader’s mind without taking away from the movement of the story. What we see is within the3 context of our perception of importance. So too is it for the Main Character. If the Main Character is properly leading the story, Reader should have a similar experience.
This is one of those *crutches* that a Big Project swallows. Short stories, on the other hand, make purple prose insanely noticeable. We’re an increasingly visual society, so this crutch is likely only going to become more prevalent. But Readers also seek more “meat’ than ever, better story and characters. So the skilled author presents both simultaneously (we are also a society of multi-taskers).