For the record, I don’t like short stories.
I’ve written about 10 of them over the course of my writing “career” thus far, and almost all of them are flops.
Not because the writing is bad per se (although some of them were written while I was still in high school, so neither is the writing deathless prose). Rather, they don’t work because they aren’t really short stories at all.
They’re novel back stories masquerading as short stories.
That just seems to be the way my brain works: my stories come to me novel length.
(If my WIP is any indication, my stories come to me trilogy length.)
I don’t really like reading short stories either because they’re too, well short.
For me, the best part about reading (and writing) is observing the growth and change in the characters. And while I’m sure it’s possible to create a strongly character-driven short story, I just want more.
I want to spend chapters with the character – volumes with him/her, through numerous challenges, successes, failures, through his/her darkest moment.
I want to experience the pathos of the character, the metaphorical destruction and rebirth. I want to slip that character on like a costume and become him/her.
There’s just not enough words for all that in a short story. This is the same reason I tend to dislike movies (especially movies adapted from novels). You can’t develop a character effectively in two hours. With a TV series, on the other hand, I’ll ride that character arc like a California surfer.
So, no – I don’t like short stories.
I do, however, like a competition.
My eye on the signs
Sci-fi/fantasy writer Chuck Wendig posts weekly short story exercises on his blog. Usually they involve writing a piece of up to 1000 words, and usually the exercise is pitched merely as a fun way to get in some writing practice.
Recently, however, the exercise was turned into a competition for which the winners would receive a number of Wendig’s writing ebooks.
I could easily buy his writing ebooks, but the chance to win them awoke the competitive beast inside me.
So too did the nature of the competition: a complete story in only three sentences, to an upwards of 100 words.
That is to say, a short story on crack. I should have hated the idea.
But inspiration struck when I heard on the news about the secret experiments the online dating site OK Cupid conducted on its users.
In one particular experiment, OK Cupid told pairs who were only 30% compatible that they were actually 90% compatible, and discovered that by telling people they were a good match, the people in turn behaved as if they were.
That story recalled to me the secret experiments that Facebook previously conducted on its users, manipulating the number of positive and negative posts in people’s news feeds to determine how this effected what users went on the post themselves. (They discovered that moods were contagious.)
Considering these two news items jointly, my mind reached the obvious conclusion:
Hence my super-short story:
Inevitably, when word got out about the social media psych experiments, the response was outrage – that making people artificially happy or sad or attracted to those they’d normally eschew was unprincipled, and that some things were best left to the heart and the heavens, and only a minimally intrusive amount of mathematics.
The social media psych heads made the appropriate sounds of contrition in public, yet silently marked the day of forced human breeding much closer than many knew to count.
The truth, indeed, lie among the stars.
I didn’t end up winning the competition, but I’m still proud I was able to express myself succinctly for once!
What do you think of short stories? Writers, do your stories usually come to you short or long? Is anyone else as creeped out by Facebook and OK Cupid’s human experiments as I am? Let me know in the comments.
(Image source #1 and #2)
11 thoughts on “The Shortest Story I’ve Ever Written”
I’m iffy on short stories. Sometimes they are fun because you can experiment a bit more, but most of mine end up reading like 35-page mini novels. I prefer to write long-form fiction for all the reasons you cited.
Isn’t OK Cupid something people pay for? If so, that’s pretty sketchy to tell your clients you are selling them one product and actually giving them something else!
Your writing voice in that story reminded me of a Greek philosopher.
OK Cupid has a free version that I suspect most people use, but still, that experiment violates the basic premise of the service (that they’ll match you up with people who are compatible with you). That’s like buying a banana from the grocery store and it being made out of butter-cream frosting!
(Now I really want a piece of cake.)
I’m not sure if sounding like a Greek philosopher in a story is good or not, although I was definitely going for a sort of omniscient long view.
Which you can do in a short story!
Nope. Can’t write short. I went and looked at my shortest story and I won’t tell you how short it wasn’t. I need room to work, space for dialogue, motivation, back story, themes…
A good size for a paperback is around 1500 pages (GWTW size). I’m doing the same trilogy thingy – and the pieces are 150K words. Every single one of them necessary. Honest.
I find most short stories barely a tale – a tiny taste of something. Then I, the reader, have to supply everything else. Too much work. Lazy writer.
It’s all writing, but writing short stories (vs. novels) is an art form unto itself. I never understood why industry experts used to equate short story publications with the ability to produce a publishable novel. That’s like the difference between cooking and baking; they may use the same oven, but both the process and the end results are completely different.
For me, personally, short stories (and any stories, including blog posts and poetry) don’t exist until all of a sudden they just do. They come to me in all sorts of lengths—the problem is, I usually want them to be longer than they really are and I don’t have the momentum in me to keep the story going.
I’m really good at writing hooks and openers for fiction. Usually, I can use that inertia to finish up the expository stuff before the real plot sets in. I usually lose momentum about a third of the way in, and start writing the last few chapters instead because I’m bored by the current place I am in the story. And then there’s nothing to fill the middle. I’m stuck thinking: Well, what now? I get from point A to point B pretty easily, but I always seem to have trouble getting from point B to point C.
They always say the first few pages of a book are crucial, but I’d disagree. I think it’s more important for the rest of the book to be good—and exist in the first place!—than it is for the first few pages to be compelling. So many
of my stories start of so strong only to go wrong in the middle because I want for there to be way more story than there actually is.
On the subject of the social media social experiments, they’re definitely creepy. But if I was in a position where I could so something like that…well, I’m not saying that they’re not also damn cool.
A lot of my writing in general doesn’t exist until it does. I have to do a lot of pre-thinking about it and figure out what it is I actually want to say (this usually happens while engaged in some form of physical activity) long before I show up at the page/screen.
This is why I’ll never truly be a pantser. For even if I don’t physically create an outline (or if I deviate from an existing outline), I’m always outlining in my mind, and can’t even get started until I have a pretty clear idea of how to get from A to B to C to Z.
Do you plot your stories before you start writing?
I almost never plot out my stories. I usually have a general idea in my mind, but I’ve never been one for outlines. What usually happens is, I’ll get an idea from something totally random. Once, I was playing hide and seek with my cousins and I hid inside the box on the window seat. It was fine for me, but I started wondering what other scenario would place someone in the box of a window seat—and what if that character was claustrophobic? Action scenes are my favorite, and it could create some decent suspense. That one half-baked scenario ended up leading to a story that is now two years, hundreds of hours, and a dozen notebooks in the making.
Anyways, I’ll ruminate on an idea for a day or two, and then what usually happens is that I’ll be in school (bored out of my mind, of course) and start to actually write the scene. If I don’t know what characters will be in it yet, I’ll just use the names of the first few people I see in the classroom—the dialogue and the names can be edited later, and sometimes the names stick and a new character is born. A lot of the time I don’t have an incredibly clear idea when the scene takes place in the course of the narrative. I just know it happens sometime after X event and sometime before Y event. Then, when I go back and type it all up, I start to connect the scenes to form something more cohesive.
I have no idea if this is something other writers do, but I definitely know what sort of mental plotting you mean, and I think I do that to an extent. I can’t imagine actually plotting everything out on paper, though. I feel like, for me at least, it would make the story so lifeless and rigid.
it would make the story so lifeless and rigid
A lot of non-plotters think that way and it doesn’t really make sense to me: I don’t see how me creating the skeleton of my story upfront and then proceeding to fill in the blanks as I write rather than letting the story go where it may should equate to lifelessness, for I let my outlines go where they may, often coming up with and then rejecting scores of different possible ideas before settling on what I think works best. To me, the two processes are identical in principle, just the outline is a pantser novel set at hyper-speed.
Besides an outline, I also need to be very clear on who my character is, for the character who creates the plot. I view the plot as a continuous chain of cause-and-effect of the character reacting to events in a manner consistent with his/her character and the result turning out badly. This is why writing non-sequentially like you do doesn’t work for me; it’s like being clubbed carried off by an attacker and waking up in an empty, locked room. I don’t know how to escape the room because I don’t know where it is or how I got there. I might just open the door and start running and figure out what to do next as I go, but uh oh – that room was actually on a station miles above the earth in outer space. I would’ve fared much better in my escape with some sort of plan in place before I opened that door.
Good shot Janna. I was surprised when I sat down determined to write a set of short stories to find that they are extremely hard work. They need a mindset that I don’t think I possess, at least not at present. The only passable ones I’ve written have drifted into view unbidden, demanding to be written. Nothing good has ever come from sitting at my laptop and trying to create something from nothing.
Yes, there’s something strange about short stories, and it’s not necessarily the length either, for I find poetry much easier.