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The Secret to Writing Short (or Long)

I once spoke to a movie producer who has about eighty films to his credit, and he told me a wary story about a child actor had graduated to his first starring role in his early twenties. On set, he acted pretentious, refusing to take advice from his director, treating others with disdain, trying to steal every scene—the usual crud.

Rather than take him to task, the producer suggested to the director that they “give him his head,” then handle the problem in editing.  The director did exactly that, and in editing he got creative, using the reaction shots from the wrong scenes, and so on.  In the end, the movie worked quite well—enough to receive broad critical acclaim and land the young star in a larger movie.

It would have been very difficult to find yourself butting heads with the star of your movie, and then looking for ways to work around the problems that he had created. Yet this is something that we do as writers all the time.  Very often, particularly early in a novel, you’ll find that certain characters are long-winded, or you discover that they have problems that seem more intriguing than you wanted them to be, or you get in a mood to really explore a character’s inner life, or to describe a scene in such detail that it kills the pacing.  

If you find yourself in one of these traps, don’t be afraid to follow your imagination.  Just don’t follow it forever.  We’ve all heard of authors who complain that one of their characters just sort of “took over the novel.”  When you never turn your internal editor back on, your editorial skills become atrophied. That’s when you become a hack.

So when first writing a scene, let your conversations go a little long.  Let your characters repeat ideas.  Spend some time over-describing your scene.  Don’t be afraid to over-write—so long as you edit ruthlessly.  In the end, your novel must display only the strongest of your work.

How to Cut an Unruly Story Down in Size

There will be times, even when you’re writing vast epic novels, that you’ll want to bring a storyline under control.  Here are five things that you can do:

  1. Restrict the number of settings in the story.  Each time that you move your characters to a new setting, you’ll spend anywhere between a half to two pages of text just creating a vivid new setting.  Therefore, if you can fuse scenes together, you can save extra space. 
  2. Restrict the number of conflicts in your story.  If you’re trying to write short, stick to the major conflicts.  It probably won’t matter to the story if your character has gout or is suffering economic setbacks.  Just focus on the single most important conflict in your story. 
  3. Cut back on extraneous characters.  For short stories, often we have interactions between only a couple people. You don’t need to have a cast of dozens in a short story.  Each time that you write about a minor character’s background, you’re using up more space.  Of course if you have four or five major characters, you then have to spend a lot of time just handling people’s various relationships, and that will quickly balloon a story out of control. 
  4. Write as few scenes as possible.  Before you begin your story, outline everything that happens: the setup, the inciting incident, the try/fail cycles, the climax and denouement.  Make a fairly complete outline of each scene: then throw out as much as you can.  Usually in any short story, you can throw out the setup, inciting incident and the first try/fail cycle.  You may also get rid of the denouement.  This means that you may only need to write the middle of your story, and then give enough details so that the ending is telegraphed. 
  5. Write economically.  Once you’ve penned your first draft, cut every spare sentence, every spare word and syllable.  

By writing this way you can take a 15,000 word novelette and cut it down into a 5,000 word short story pretty easily!  You can also use these techniques to bring a novel under control if it’s in danger of going on endlessly.

Nailing the Short Story

Ernest Hemingway once said, “I just wrote a short story about a man whose son gets killed in the war.  He goes out to a bar and gets drunk, then hangs himself.”  Now, if you’ve read his famous short piece “A Clean, Well-lighted Place,” you’ll recognize that Hemingway doesn’t tell us in the opening that the protagonist has had his son killed.  Instead, he’s just drinking, and as he does so, his thoughts spiral down into the abyss.  The tone of the story hints at previous incidents, but doesn’t describe them.  If your character has had a bad hair day and an argument with her psychiatrist, it may not be . . . worth writing. You might want to start the story later. 

Follow these tips to nail your short story:

  1. Look at each scene that builds toward your climax and ask yourself, “Does this need to be here?  Does it really serve its function?” 
  2. Just as you can truncate the opening of a short story, you can also truncate the end.  In Hemingway’s story, he doesn’t tell us that the protagonist goes home and hangs himself.  Again, the tone implies the ending. 
  3. Look for a powerful conclusion, one that is emotionally moving or intellectually stimulating.  That’s the centerpiece for your tale—the reason for its existence.  Some authors insist that the story end happily, and I admit that I like happy endings.  But powerful is better than happy. 
  4. When you’re done, trim it back.  Cut every single excess syllable in the story so long as it doesn’t adversely affect your plot, your characters’ voices, or the tone of the story.

In other words, keep it short and powerful.

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