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Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Accidental Short Story

A topic that's come up in my writing group is blogging. (Apparently I'm the resident "expert".) I invited one of the members, M.J. Lovgren, to try her hand at writing a blog post. Let us know what you think... 



I saw myself as a novelist, and pooh-poohed short fiction – even though I loved reading it. Then I started writing short stories by accident. Here are some of the things I learned.

Making things shorter can be difficult. As Henry David Thoreau observed, “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”

A novel, by its very nature, allows the writer more time and more room. Short stories have to entice the reader and make a point within the same rules – a beginning (inciting incident), a middle (main story), and an end (climax and denouement). They just have to do it faster.

Even the definition of what is “short” can vary.  It can be as concise as flash fiction or almost as long as a novella. I’d put Alice Munro in the second category. (And she won the Nobel Prize for short stories.) Yet, one of my favorites is “Dinosaur,” a lovely 300 word tale published by Flash Fiction Online and The Sun.

Here’s the accident part.

I didn’t start out to write a short story. I simply wanted to take a little side trip to discover more about my novel’s antagonist. A nasty piece of work, William was (and is) a middle-aged sociopathic killer. I just couldn’t grasp what made him tick, even though I had done plenty of research. It is generally thought that sociopaths (aka psychopaths) are born not made.

So I tried writing about him as a pre-teen. His anger and frustration with his next door neighbor, Mary Ellen, came pouring out of the computer. The short story is set in the same place and time I experienced as an eleven-year-old tomboy. But this time it’s William and Mary Ellen climbing the trees in the vacant lot behind my house. What happens next told me how William viewed the world and what motivated his actions.

This is one way to develop a back story and biography for a main character – something we are continually advised to do. Approaching this in the usual way, i.e. answering standard questions about the character, didn’t work for me. I found it tedious and boring. But turning this exercise into a short story made me immediately understand this character who had been so elusive.

So, if you find you’re stuck trying to make a character come alive, and the conventional methods don’t work, try writing a short story about him or her. You might like it!

Posted by M.J. Lovgren

...And for what it's worth, I've read a good portion of this novel, and William is... scary...

5 comments:

Huntress said...

I think blogging is in M.J.'s future!!

Good representation of short stories and how they evolve. I had a deadline and an empty head when I crossed paths with a huge dust devil. Ah, the inspiration it gave me :D

Let us know if you start a blog. You definitely have a knack.

Brett Minor said...

Wow! I love this idea. I have two characters in the book I am working on who have a complex backstory. Writing a few short stories to help flesh this out sounds like the perfect way to explore how they came to be who they are.

Theresa Milstein said...

Your entry into short stories sounds similar to mine. I love that you wanted to flush out a character.

Darla M Sands said...

I tend to write erotica, so my novelette series works well. ~grin~ And now I must get to rewrites!

Tamara Narayan said...

I tend to over write so short stories are a challenge.