Thursday, February 11, 2021

6 Ways to Fit More Story in Less Space

By José Pablo Iriarte, @LabyrinthRat

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: Hemingway’s famous “six-word story” proves you can pack a lot of story into a small amount of space. José Pablo Iriarte share six tips on creating depth in short fiction.

When I have conversations with other authors about writing and selling fictionparticularly when I'm talking with folks who are aware of my magazine and anthology salesI often hear novelists say some variation of "I couldn't write short fiction to save my life! It's so hard to get a whole story in such a small space!" Often there seems to be an implication that some people are born short story writers and some are not, which is where I take exception.

Because the thing is, I also used to believe that I just wasn't born with the knack for writing short. Back around 2012, before I made my first sale, at my writing group's first meeting of the new year, when we discussed our writing resolutions, I remember how mine was to figure out how to write a story of under five thousand words. This was something I had never yet succeeded in doing. In the years since, I've sold nearly thirty short stories to top spec fic markets, been nominated for awards, and generally come to be known as a short story writer.

If I can learn how to keep a story short, any writer can. You can.

Here are some techniques I learned along the way. They're not one-size-fits-all: these are not tools I apply to every story, but rather options I keep in my writerly bag of tricks, and deploy when I think they can help me. Maybe they can help you too.

1. Fewer characters, fewer locations.

This is the most straightforward tip I have for you, and a good place to start. Every character you introduce is another person you've got to flesh out. Every location is another place you need to describe. Blockbuster epic films get to shoot on location in Tunisia and Norwaymore intimate stories maybe all take place in a single locale, or perhaps two. Do you have multiple characters with small parts, that might be combinable?

My 2019 story, "Amanda Draws Crows," takes place entirely in one apartment. Mostly around the dining room table. There are five characters in that story, but only three of them play a significant role. My story "Heart Stitch" features just two.

Mary Robinette Kowal has a formula she shares for estimating the length of a story before you write it. (You can find it many places online, but here is one.) This formula suggests that each character and each setting will add 750 words to the story multiplied by the number of plot threads they are involved in. That can add up quickly!

2. Problems that can be solved with a single confrontation.

A heist story probably won't fit in a flash fiction space. The more pieces you need to set up to bring off the climax, the more words that story will need. Almost all of my stories follow this rule. I actually think most story premises can be cast as longer or shorter works, but when you decide to make something short, you will (likely) need to make the resolution compact.

(Here’s more on What's the Problem? The Four Classic Conflict Types)

3. You don't need to reinvent the wheel.

I have a story set on Mars, "Spirit of Home," with slidewalks moving my protagonist through domed cities as she searches for a gift for her ailing father. It's not a story about Mars, or about terraforming. It's, honestly, a story about the diaspora experience and growing up between cultures. So I don't spend thousands of words explaining the engineering. You've seen Mars beforemaybe you read Kim Stanley Robinson's massive books, or maybe you just picture Total Recallyou don't need more from me than a passing reference to see it now in your head.

Science fiction's not your thing? Even easier, then. My story "Secrets and Things We Don't Say Out Loud," is set in a small town that the protagonist is passing through ("Anderson, or Henderson, or some other last name"). You've seen small townsif not in real life, then at least in a movie, surely. All it takes is a telling detail or two and you know where we are.

(Here’s more on The Literary Tour Guide: How Much Do You Need to Describe Your Setting?)

4. Use quick-cut scenes to bypass lengthy transitions.

My first short fiction sale was a story called "Yuca and Dominoes," which was published in Strange Horizons in 2013. It's 4400 words, so just barely keeping my New Year's resolution from 2012. 😉 But it features a ridiculously large cast for such a short storywhich brings me back to my note at the beginning, that not every tip here is for every tale.

Off the top of my head, I can think of eight characters who have significant roles. But it's nine scenes, averaging just a couple pages each, and basically there is little to no transitioning other than a scene break (#), and the reader is dumped straightaway into the next bit. To make things even tougher, the scenes are not in chronological order!

But there are cues to try to fix the setting in the reader's mind quickly. Different nicknames to suggest when in the protagonist's life each scene takes place. Maybe a sentence to establish what's going on. ("The going-away party was Carmencita's idea.") Scenes that jump right in with dialogue. ("What do I get if I win?") Basically, I relied on the reader to fill the gaps in, and I hope that when you're done with this story, it feels like you spent a lot more than 4400 words with those characters. (Think about the powerhouse Star Trek episode, "The Inner Light," where you see Captain Picard live an entire lifetime over the course of just half the scenes in one episode.)

(Here’s more on And...End Scene: When to Add a Scene Break)

5. Use poetic tools to make words pack a punch.

One of the first stories of mine to garner critical and reader attention was the story of an abused boy standing up for himself, "The Curse of Giants." That story is only 687 words, but it's split into six distinct scenes. Most of them are just a couple paragraphs in length. A technique I used to do some emotional heavy lifting for me was opening each scene with a repetitive refrain ("The curse of giants is . . ."), along with understatement. The violence in the story doesn't take place on the page; it takes place in the reader's mind. It is implied. By the end of the story, when the refrain is changed for the final scene ("The blessing of giants is . . .") the reader has encountered it enough times that the change stands out, and is meaningful.

(Here’s more on Poetic Tricks: Infuse Your Fiction with the Right VERBS)

6. Ridiculously long titles! 

I'm not even kidding! This is an especially useful technique if you're writing flash fiction. Take a look at stories being published in Flash Fiction Online and in Daily Science Fiction, and you'll run into a bunch with extremely long titles.

I have one of my own in this vein, "Cupid and Psyche at the Caffé Sol y Mar," a story of just 800 words. Here's the thing: By the time you read the title, before I have spent word one, you already know where the story is set. You know who the two characters are. If you are familiar with the story of Cupid and Psyche, then you have spotted the juxtaposition of classic Greek mythological characters with a modern setting. All of this set-up work is already done, and I have used none of my wordcount. That's why we do that.

What do these have in common?

There is a common thread to many of these techniques, and it's getting the reader to do a bit more of the work for you. Letting the reader imagine the things you don't show, letting the reader transition from scene to scene, letting the reader do the worldbuilding. A nice thing about short stories is you can be a bit more demanding from the readertell a story in second person, maybe, or with a detestable narratorand the story is short enough that it ends before it wears out its welcome.

There are definitely other techniques you can come up with to get a story across with a low wordcountas I noted, even these aren't universal. But these are some that have served me pretty well. There's no short fiction genekeeping it short is a matter of technique, and technique can be learned.

José Pablo Iriarte is a Cuban-American writer and teacher who lives in Central Florida. José’s fiction can be found in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, and others, and has been featured in best-of lists compiled by Tangent Online, Featured Futures, iO9, and Quick Sip Reviews, and on the SFWA Nebula Award Recommended Reading List. Jose’s novelette, The Substance of My Lives, the Accidents of Our Births, was a Nebula Award Finalist and was long-listed for the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award.

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  1. Thanks for the article! It contains 6 thought provoking tips that I will be able to use.

  2. Loved the article. Curious why you chose to write short stories instead of novels.

  3. Excellent article. I want to better my skills at short fiction. These six suggestions helps me a great deal.

  4. Hi Anon! I actually write both! So far, I have simply made more of a "splash" with my short stories. I do have something in the works right now that I'm not able to disclose at the moment. As for why I like to write short stories, I like to write them because I love to read them. I love it when a compact little tale is able to elicit an emotional reaction in me. From a writing standpoint, it's a good craft challenge--to try to write with as little extraneous, as little waste as possible. I find it immensely satisfying when a reader tells me I have had the same effect on them as my favorite writers have had on me.

  5. What an excellent post! I particularly agree with the tip about keeping the characters down to a minimum in shorts. Thank you for sharing!