To successfully write short fiction, you need to make a big impact in as few words as possible. So every choice you make as an author needs to be deliberate, every character needs to act with purpose, and every word needs to pack a punch. When less is definitely more, focusing on certain details can help imbue your short story with lots of color, meaning, and subtext—without superfluous words.
Four Small Ways To Pack Big Meaning Into Short Stories
1. Character Gestures – When you’re writing with a word count restriction, you want to show your characters’ personalities without using too much dialogue. One way to do this is through physical gestures. For example, a surgeon just exiting the operating room could hang his head as he approaches the patient’s loved ones. This simple gesture will speak volumes about how the surgery went, without you writing a single extra word.
2. Clothing Choices – What your character is wearing can provide insights into his or her personality, and even help explain the setting or propel the plot. If your protagonist is wearing a stethoscope, a name tag, and a doctor’s coat covered in blood, your reader will know that your character is a doctor who has just dealt with a major trauma.
3. Setting As A Character – In most great fiction, the setting is just as important as the plot and the characters. The best settings will move the story forward. Take our hospital example, for instance. Rain splattering against the window in a patient’s recovery room not only adds description to the setting, but also conveys the mood of the scene to the reader. Without even seeing your character or hearing her doctors give bad news, your reader will already sense that the outcome is not going to be positive.
4. Precise Dialogue – One of the most important ways to make a big impact in a short story is to write crisp, concise dialogue. Dialogue helps drive the plot and reveal information about the characters. So the more succinct your dialogue, the more opportunities you’ll have to reveal much while actually saying less. For instance, you can have your doctor use twenty words to give a colleague an update. Or, you can take those twenty words and split them between the two characters to quickly give more depth to the conversation—and your story.
How Can You Implement These Techniques In Your Writing?
To understand how well these techniques work, read some short fiction! Read flash fiction to see how authors tell complex, intriguing stories with a limited amount of words. See how many techniques you can recognize, then apply what you’ve learned to your own writing.
As an exercise, give yourself a short word limit and try to tell your story. As you edit, reduce the word count further until you can deliver your short story in as few words as possible.
Check out these articles for more about keeping short stories short:
5 Ways To Shorten Your Short Stories
5 Surprising Short Story Mistakes
QUESTION: What tricks do you use to make an impact in few words?
I like to double (and if I can triple) up on meanings. It’s fun when the reader goes “aha,” but you always worry that the reader will only get one meaning, arbitrarially dismiss the other, and decide your writing is stupid.
I remember I was describing one of the hitches in the Great
Circus Parade in a class assignment that we edited round-robin style. I said the hitch was so long “the lead horse could be coming down the street while the wheel horses were still going up the street.” One classmate rewrote it to say “the lead horse could be going up the next street while the wheel horses were still going down the last street.” A later classmate correctly inferred I was describing a U-turn. What I described was an impossibility for most hitches. What the first editor edited, was so not-unique as to not be worth mentioning.
Thanks for these great tips. They are really useful for helping me get more out of writing a story.
These ideas sound like ways to make writing more cliched.Maybe it’s all true but I got bored reading it. It could have been cut to what Vonnegut said: “If a word doesn’t need to be there, strike it out. Every sentence must reveal character or move the plot forward.” That’s how I remember what he said. Good luck to you all.