Technology has made it easier to read on the go, but it has also shortened our attention spans. With more people reading literary journals on mobile devices, most literary editors are leaning toward accepting short stories that are 3,500 words or under. If your short stories tend to run longer, you may have a harder time finding readers and editors who are interested. To boost your odds of getting an acceptance and ensure that your short stories are short enough, Writer’s Relief has a few tips for you.
How To Keep Your Short Stories Short
Live by the golden rule: Less is more. One of the reasons short stories have a reputation for being difficult to write is that writers have fewer words to develop their characters and plot. But this is where skill comes into play. Understanding the impact of concise, well-focused writing is an essential part of the craft and key to minimizing the length of your short story. Sometimes this means doing away with unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, and wordy passages, which is known in the writing world as “killing your darlings.”
Keep the scope small. In other words, condense the time frame. Think of it this way: For a short story, you don’t want to write about Joe Lucky’s life from the time he was born until his death. You should focus on when he finds a winning lottery ticket in a jacket he bought at the thrift store, and what happens as a result.
Choose and build your theme. Just as a photographer focuses on the best angle for their visual story, the same approach can be taken with the written story’s angle or theme. One way to build your theme is to write the first draft while letting the character tell you what he or she wants. Once you identify what your story’s theme is, you can then tighten up the plot and reduce the word count.
Reduce the number of characters. Eliminating characters who are not vital to the story will help bring the word count down. Imagine if the well-known story about the three little pigs also mentioned their aloof, unhelpful cat neighbors, the chatty ducks living on the next street, and a forgetful cow who kept misdelivering their mail.
Another good reason to limit how many characters you have and what you say about them: Today’s readers may find lengthy character descriptions distracting and even boring. You want to make a big impact in few words.
Set the perfect pace. Pacing is essential to every story, but especially in a short story. But be careful: Overly fast pacing isn’t necessarily better, because your story will then feel too rushed. Finding the perfect pace is a big part of getting the reader hooked and getting your short story published.
Show—don’t tell. This is something writers hear all the time, and it’s especially true for short stories. Showing instead of telling lets you expose the reader to actions rather than simply explaining everything. A great way to show is through dialogue, which also takes up less space than backstory. “Jill, don’t walk under that dangling piano!” is much more concise and engaging to readers than Jill decided to take a midday stroll and began to walk under a dangling piano. I shouted that she should not walk there. Either way, Jill should stay away from precariously perched heavy musical instruments.
Limit or delete exposition. Exposition, which is often used in novels as a way for the reader to get to know a character, can take up too much word real estate in a short story. To write an effective, interesting short story, you must relay any necessary historical, emotional, or psychological aspects of a character without using too many words. Instead of Doctor Mackenzie worked a very long shift and dealt with multiple victims of the car accident, you can paint the same visual with Doctor Mackenzie’s white coat was wrinkled and splattered with blood.
Long story short, if you tighten and trim your work to focus on only the elements needed to move your short story forward, it should be short enough for today’s market. And if you’re curious as to what editors of literary magazines are looking for in short stories right now, check out this list.
Question: How do you keep your short stories to 3,500 words?