I’ve been thinking a lot about short stories lately, and thought I’d share some of those thoughts here. On paper, short stories look like they should be easy—they’re short, after all. They probably don’t require all the intricate plotting and thought of novels…right?

It’s a common misconception that the short story is easy to craft. The reality is quite different. The short story writer needs to worry about every single thing a regular novelist handles—plot, character, dialogue, subplot, subtext, villain/antagonist, story arc, and everything else—along with a word count cap. This cap may range from two thousand to ten thousand words, and cramming all of the above into that limited number of words has daunted many a writer.

Here’s five tips to keep in mind while you’re working on your short story:

Don’t bog yourself down in backstory. It’s one thing if your short story is one small piece of a much larger universe—some authors write one-offs to complement their longer works—but overplotting is the kiss of death for what might be an otherwise good story. You’re not working with that many words, so don’t worry so much about the great-grandfather of your character’s fifth cousin.

Do focus on characters. They’re carrying this thing; many a reader will forgive a strange plot or confusing writing if they really like the characters. Make your leads people that characters can identify with and want to read about, and you’ve already won half the battle.

Do keep things concise. Overwriting will kill a good story just as quickly as poorly drawn characters and too much story. In a short story, less is more; cut back on the purple prose and flowery language (if you must use it at all), and just say what you mean. This is often the most effective way to cut to the heart of a tale.

Do write out a plotline, even if it’s just a guideline. There’s nothing worse than sitting down in front of the computer, fingers itching to type, an exciting beginning lodged in your brain…and then realizing it’s not going anywhere. Short stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, and not everyone realizes how tough it can be to come up with a story that flows. Scratch out your ideas and come up a beginning, middle, and end, if only so you know you have something to light your way.

Do think about how you want people to feel when they’re reading, because that’s going to influence the way you write your characters and what they do. If you want folks to laugh, you’re probably not going to go into graphic detail about a character’s private suffering. If your goal is to make people squirm in disgust and suffer nightmares, you might go into extensive descriptions of just how your villain plans to torture his foes. If you know how you want people to walk away after reading your story, you’ve got a head start on the tone you’ll probably take.

Above all, don’t let a few thousand words stand between you and the story you’ve got in your head. Sit down and write it out…just remember your word count.

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