The best way to kill boring scenes and assemble an army of readers is to improve your craft by mastering the art of writing short stories.
James L. Rubart and I interviewed a master of short stories. He’s written a number-one bestseller for writers called Plot and Structure (affiliate link), and he has served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest. James Scott Bell is the author of several popular writing books and a host of mystery, thriller, and suspense novels. Since he’s an International Thriller Writers Award winner and Christy Award winner, we asked him about the key to writing a great short story.
How to Start Writing Short Stories
Rubart: What advice do you give writers who are just starting to write short stories?
James Scott Bell: Short stories used to be the primary way new writers got their feet wet. For 50-100 years, writers learned their craft and started marketing themselves by writing short stories. From 1920-1960 the pulp market was huge. There were detective and adventure magazines like Dying Detective, Weird Tales, and Science Fiction. A voracious reading public would buy those publications from newsstands for five or ten cents. Some of the best writers America has produced started in the pulps writing short stories.
I advise beginning writers to read some of the short story masters in the genre you’re aiming for. But don’t limit yourself to one genre because any great short story writer can teach you about craft and style. You will benefit from reading a wide variety of authors and genres.
If you’re hoping to write full-length fiction, you must do the same thing. You need to read a lot of full-length fiction to get a sense for how it’s done.
As a beginner, you need to read, think about the story and its message, and know what you feel about it. Study the craft by reading authors who have done it well.
How do short stories help novelists?
Rubart: What are the keys to writing short stories?
Bell: Many authors try to write a novel first, and then they discover that short stories help build their readership. So, they try to write stories using the model of a novel. But you can’t write a really short novel. You just don’t have the space.
A novel has a definite structure and a lot of space to develop different aspects.
Short stories help you establish your style and voice, and an established style will help when you go to write your novel. Writing short stories will teach you to write scenes and characters. The form has its own specific feel. It’s not a multi-layered, sub-plotted genre. It’s short, and it’s meant to do one thing in 1,000-7,500 words. If your word count is higher, it would be considered a novelette or novella.
In a short story, you only have space to do one thing, and that’s how I teach short story writing.
What is the most important part of a short story?
Rubart: What are the common mistakes first-time short story writers make?
Bell: Sometimes, they’ll start a story with a “what if” idea. Writers begin to explore the idea, but they don’t know exactly where they’re going with it. Their writing is more of an exploration. They’ll get to a point where the story feels like it’s over, and they just stop and call it a short story.
I teach writers to find the one definite point you’re writing toward. When you know that point, you’re free to place that structural element anywhere in your story. The greatest short stories, the ones that work, are about one shattering moment.
The story revolves around something that happens that changes a character on the inside or flips their perspective on life. The moment shatters their complacency or the operating principle of their life. The greatest short stories explore those shattering moments that have a tremendous emotional impact on the characters and the reader.
As you read short stories, look for the I teach writers to find the one definite point you’re writing toward. When you know that point, you’re free to place that structural element anywhere in your story. The greatest short stories, the ones that work, are about one shattering moment. The creative part of writing the short story is deciding when that moment occurs.
You can place the shattering moment at any one of five points:
- Before the story begins
- After the story ends
That is the structural secret of the great short stories.
Examples of Great Short Stories
Rubart: Can you give us an example from a story we might be familiar with?
Bell: In Hemmingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, the shattering moment happens before you begin reading. It’s one of the greatest short stories, and for that reason, it’s taught in college-level writing and English courses.
It’s about a couple sitting in a train station waiting for a train to arrive. They’re having a drink, and there is an implied tension between them that comes only through the dialogue. As the story progresses, we learn that the conversation is the aftermath of the shattering moment that happened before the story began.
This man has impregnated this woman and has told her he wants her to have an abortion. The brilliance of the story is that the word “abortion” is never used. It’s only seen from the surface level of the conversation with that subtext underneath.
The story, Girls in Summer Dresses by Irwin Shaw places the shattering moment after the story has ended. It’s an implied, ambiguous, open-ended conclusion where you wonder how the characters handle what happens after the story ends.
In Shaw’s story, a middle-aged husband and wife are walking down the street in New York, and the man notices young women in their summer dresses. The couple goes to a restaurant, and their conversation becomes increasingly intense.
Finally, the wife confronts her husband. He thinks it’s all fun and games to notice young women, but it hurts her on a deep level. The story ends with him noticing the waitress. You get the impression that the wife has been shattered. It’s left to the reader to fill in the blanks about what happens between them in the aftermath.
The shattering moment may happen at the beginning, middle, or end of your story. Wherever you place it, the rest of the story is about the aftermath.
Crime stories usually place the twist at the end. It’s a satisfying form of writing. The twist is the shattering moment for the lead character, but it’s also a shattering moment for the reader because they were taken off guard and surprised.
Rubart: The shattering moment can also be beautiful. For example, in O. Henry’s Gift of the Magi, the shattering moment creates a positive emotional impact
Bell: Yes. That shattering moment is at the end where the wonderful twist is that both characters have given up their most valuable possession for the other. It’s a sad moment, but the sadness is overcome by the beautiful sense of sacrifice and generosity. Maybe they didn’t know how much they loved each other, but now they do.
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: You can find good examples of positive emotional endings in Pixar’s short films. They’re super simple. In the short film Lava, a volcano is singing for his lady volcano, and then he sinks into the sea. You’ve only been invested in the story for a minute or two, but you’re moved because you’re sad for the volcano.
Bell: Pixar is plugged into emotional impact. There is also that great prologue to the movie UP. It begins with the meeting of a young boy and girl and follows the course of their life. Incredibly, it was done only with images and no dialogue, and it provoked a very emotional response. I cried.
Writing short stories will teach the novelist how to select details that bring a scene to life. Raymond Carver was a master of that. He was considered one of the great short story writers of the 20th century. He had the ability to select a detail that seemed irrelevant when taken out of context, but in the context of the story, it brought incredible illumination to the scene.
When you learn to bring sensory details to a scene, your novel will benefit.
Who are the best authors to study?
Rubart: If someone wants to study short stories, which authors or collections would you recommend?
Bell: It depends on the genre you’re looking for. You’ll find masters in several genres.
Hemmingway’s short stories are a great starting place. He was possibly the greatest short story writer because of his ability to select detail and to render a scene. He didn’t overload readers with emotional adjectives, but he made the scene come to life in a way that impacted readers emotionally and directly. He wanted to strip away manipulative elements, so he designed his stories to render life on the page with “one true sentence,” as he used to say.
Jeffery Deaver writes fabulous twist endings. Read his collections Twisted, and More Twisted to learn how to write a twist where readers try to guess the ending. It’s fun to be fooled by the writer.
Lawrence Block writes genre crime and has a collection called Enough Rope, which has several excellent crime stories.
What books teach how to write short stories?
Rubart: Do you have any resources on the craft of writing short stories?
Bell: I have written, How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career (affiliate link). I’ve read many books on writing short stories, and none of them really covered the one shattering moment concept. I discovered that on my own, so I wanted to write a book about it. But I also wanted to write something to encourage writers to publish their short fiction online.
The short story form really dried up when the pulp magazines begin to fold. The slick magazines were very selective and chose the top-tier writers. A few genre magazines like Analog, Ellery Queen, and Alfred Hitchcock still exist, and those are possibilities for writers who want to break into those markets.
But now, any writer can strategically publish their short stories to build a following and to test their material. By testing your story in a short form, you can learn whether the story is one you want to continue in the serial form. You might find you want to extend the stories into a collection or expand one into a novel. There is a lot of flexibility, and it won’t cost you much money.
Umstattd: Many of our listeners are going through The 5-Year Plan to Become a Best Selling Author, and we recommend multiple books by James Scott Bell. How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career (affiliate link) is the first one we recommend.
Crafted by Thomas Umstattd and bestselling, award-winning author James L. Rubart, The Five Year Plan is a step-by-step guide for your writing career. Learn what to do in each quarter of the year to avoid the mistakes that hijack success for most authors. Learn more at NovelMarketing.com/courses.
Becoming a massively successful self-published author can be challenging. Even just one missing link in an otherwise perfect plan can kill your results. In Why Authors Fail, award-winning author Derek Doepker reveals the 17 biggest mistakes authors make that sabotage their success along with practical steps to fix each mistake.
Jack Umstattd was on December 23rd weighing 9 pounds 10 ounces. Both he and my wife are tired from a long delivery but doing well overall. For those keeping score at home, we now have three children. Mercy age 3, Tommy age 2, and baby Jack.