Tuesday, May 18, 2021

How to Keep Your Short Story Short

By Rayne Hall, @RayneHall

Part of the Focus on Short Fiction Series

JH: If you’re used to writing novels, switching to short fiction can be rough. Rayne Hall shares tips on how to keep your word count down.

Shorter stories are quicker to write. This means, you can produce more stories, and multiply your chances of getting them accepted for publication. But stories often expand as we write them, trying to grow into novels, demanding more and more words. How can you keep your short story short?

Here are six techniques professional short story authors use. Apply them when you start plotting your yarn.

1. Condense the time frame.

Let the action play out in the shortest time possible a weekend, an afternoon, perhaps even just an hour. Plots spreading over weeks, months or years tend to grow into novels. Curb this by making everything happen quickly.

2. Reduce the cast

Recruit only as many characters as the story needs. The fewer characters, the easier it is to keep a story short, so don't involve a cast of thirty when you can tell the story with three.

Combine several roles: the old school friend is also the piano teacher, the neighbor and the one who finds the treasure in the attic.

3. Stay in one place

Can the whole story play out in a single location? Then keep it there. This will make the story much shorter than if you set one scene in Istanbul, one in Copenhagen and the third in Rome.

If changing locations are crucial to the plot, use as few as possible. Let all Istanbul scenes play out in the Grand Bazaar, instead of hopping from the Bazaar to the Bosporus.

(Here’s more with How Your Setting Can Affect Your Characters)

4. Limit the number of scenes

The fewer scenes, the shorter the story. Write a list of the scenes you think you need, then see which of them can be combined. Could the scene where Mary finds the body also be the one in which she rejects John's proposal of marriage? Combining scenes will not only tighten the story, but give it a faster pace and make it more exciting to read.

(Here’s more with 6 Ways to Fit More Story in Less Space)

5. Leave out chunks where nothing happens

Novice writers often pen passages which contribute little to the plot. Leave those out. Instead of describing the train journey from Copenhagen to the Istanbul, with descriptions of the bunk where she sleeps, the food she eats and the landscapes she sees on the way, simply write, "The train arrived in Istanbul at dusk."

(Here’s more with Tips on Writing "The Boring Stuff" Readers Tend to Skip)

6. Skip flashbacks

Flashbacks - sections where the main character relives past events - add heavily to the wordcount. They also disrupt the flow of the action and slow the story's pace, so professional short story authors avoid them. Where possible, weave the information about the character's past into the narration, using just a few words here and there. For example, "The curtains and cushions were black, like those in her brother's bedroom when he went through his Goth phase."


How to shorten an over-long story

Perhaps you've already written a draft, and you need to shave off wordage to get it below the maximum word count for the anthology to which you want to submit. Or maybe your beta readers tell you that your story drags and needs tightening.

Follow the six techniques I've outlined above. They'll help you get the wordcount down drastically. It's more work to apply them in retrospect than if you had used them from the start, but they bring results.

Cut introspections. Whenever your point of view character spends a lot of time thinking, pondering, wondering, assessing, evaluating, remembering, reminiscing, musing and emoting, cut the lot. Condense all the thoughts in that scene into two sentences. The character's actions will reveal much of her thinking process anyway.

Delete superfluous words. Many words carry little or no meaning; you can shed them without loss. Here are the main candidates: could, start/started to, begin/began to, that, then, somewhat, somehow, really, completely, very, say, all, just. For example, "She could hear a cock starting to crow" (8 words) could become "She heard a cock crow" or even "A cock crowed." (3 words)

(Here’s more with Slash and Burn: Cutting Words From Your Novel)

The techniques I've outlined in this article are suggestions, not rules. Although they work for most stories, not all of them may be right for the tale you want to tell. View them as helpful signposts pointing in what's probably the best direction. If your plot needs to go elsewhere, follow your vision.

Which of these techniques will you try for your next story? Are you already using some of them, and if yes, what's your experience?

If you have questions and tips to share, leave a comment, and I'll reply.

Rayne Hall is the author of over seventy books, mostly fantasy, horror and non-fiction. Her books have been published by several publishers in several countries, and translated into several languages. A trained publishing manager with more than thirty years’ experience in the industry, she also publishes her own books and champions indie-publishing for authors. She is the editor and publisher of the Ten Tales short story anthologies.

Tighten and tone your writing style, and use simple revision tricks to slim down your manuscript. Shed thousands of words without changing the plot.

Strip away the word fat and reveal the muscle of your unique author voice.

This book is short, but potent.

It is perfect for
- self-editing before you submit your book to agents and publishers, or before self-publishing
- understanding why your stories get rejected, or why so few readers buy your book after downloading the sample chapters
- taking your writing craft skills to the next level
- polishing your writing style for the move from amateur to professional

The book is based on Rayne Hall's popular class of the same title which has helped many writers shed word weight and develop a leaner, stronger writing style. Some authors say the class was the best investment they ever made. Now you can study the techniques in book form at your own pace.

Please note: This book assumes that you have some fiction writing experience. You'll benefit most if you've already mastered the basics of the craft and want to learn specialist techniques. It is not recommend for absolute beginners.


  1. Thanks for featuring my tips today.

    1. Always a delight to have you on the blog.

    2. Hello Rayne, Janice and all.
      Rayne, I'm so glad to have found you here, somehow I lost track of your blog.
      Janice, thanks for sharing these lovely tips, and thanks to The Story Reading Ape for sharing on his blog, otherwise I'd have never found it.

  2. This is as comprehensive a list as I've seen. Thank you. These are tips I've used in the past and they work. One I'd never thought about until I heard about someone doing the opposite was limiting the number of POVs. It'd always seemed logical to me that a short story would naturally mean one POV and so that's what I've always done. Then, I ran into someone online talking about writing a short story with several POVs. I was, shall we say, aghast. Can it work? Not in my short story writing world where the space to develop a character is limited. I wish anyone attempting it the best, but I'm sticking with one POV = one short story.

    1. (oops, my reply didn't get attached to the right thread, so here it is again) That's a good point. Most short stories don't lend themselves to multiple PoVs. There can be exceptions, e.g. a story which shows different perspectives on the same incident, one paragraph each. Also, changing the PoV for a twist ending often works. I wrote a 800-word historical short story, alternating the PoV of two soldiers in opposing armies, and worked well, making the story immensely powerful. But these are exceptions. For most short stories, it's best to stick to a single PoV.

    2. Haha … I see the other reply. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who does that.

      Thank you for the insights. Your "exceptions to the rule" are fascinating and demonstrate your willingness to experiment. I always enjoy your replies, they're packed full of more insight.

  3. That's a good point. Most short stories don't lend themselves to multiple PoVs. There can be exceptions, e.g. a story which shows different perspectives on the same incident, one paragraph each. Also, changing the PoV for a twist ending often works. I wrote a 800-word historical short story, alternating the PoV of two soldiers in opposing armies, and worked well, making the story immensely powerful. But these are exceptions. For most short stories, it's best to stick to a single PoV.

  4. Wow, these are such great books. I've just bought a few, on crisis, editing and emotion. It's great to add to the knowledge of my craft. Thank you for sharing your expertise.

    1. I hope the books will be a great help and catapult you forward on your writing journey.

  5. Great advice, as always (I keep the Word Loss Diet at hand for every edit, especially short stories). Thanks.

    1. Do you find that after using The Word Loss Diet a few times, you automatically avoid wordy words and write tighter?

    2. I try, and it helps a great deal if I reread a few writing books (including the Word Loss book) before I sit down to write the first draft, but sometimes, it's just madness when writing, and while I'm waiting for the story to 'cool' I pick it up again so it's fresh in my mind for the next stage edit.
      I hope one day to keep it all in my head before, and during, the first draft, but those eggs rattle in the basket when I'm running with the words.
      I hope that makes sense.

  6. Diana Atanasova5/19/2021 1:36 PM

    I love your writing tips, Rayne. I do not write myself but I love books and I have always been interested in how professional writers write and what technicalities they have to resort to...I am always keen to read your blog contributions. Thank you for yet another interesting read.

    1. I'm surprised you like to read about the technicalities of story construction, Diana. I always thought seeing how a story is constructed would take some of the fun out of reading. :-D

  7. Thanks for all the good tips and ideas--now to put them to good use

  8. Thank you thank you! Sometimes when I am editing my work and trying to curb the fluff, I don't know where to begin. It's led to a tons of first drafts and very few second ones (my short stories can become endless unintentionally bad novellas). This is a great diving board post to revisit my work! :)

  9. I'm using titles for the chapters in my historical fiction manuscript. It summarizes the chapter for the reader and serves as a reminder for me during the editing process.

    I love it when authors use titled chapters. Sometimes I want to re-read favorite chapters. Having chapter names makes them easy to find.

  10. Rayne Hall always has good writing advice. Love her Writer's Craft series.

  11. "Leave out chunks where nothing happens" - When I read, I tend to skim over parts that don't add to the story.

    I enjoy writing short stories. I find it difficult to create longer works because I want to get right to the point.

  12. These are all excellent points. I have been writing and publishing short stories for more than forty years now (I have earned my spurs- I hope) and have been following these rules or an approximation of them for most of those long years. I was also (some time ago now) editor of a number of magazines that Included short stories in the format. These were pretty much the rules that applied (though we always allowed the author ONE paragraph that they felt was special)