What’s So Different About Writing Short Stories?

by Rob Brunet

The other night after the creative writing course I teach in Toronto, my students asked about writing short stories as opposed to novels. Did I approach them any differently? They waited until I’d had a couple drinks, and I guess I could blame the bourbon for my shallow reply but, truth is, there’s more to it than the pat answer I provided.

I talked about the need for a beginning, middle, and end. How even in a piece of flash fiction, your characters need to be defined, and the setting make sense. All true, but not as helpful as I could have been.

I’m a pantser, writing without a road map. On a regular basis, I try to break myself from the habit, but invariably find myself mired in an outline that feels more like chains than scaffolding. I’ll get 25,000 words into a novel and start sketching ideas of where the rest will go. Plot twists are layered on character arcs and it all looks fine; that is, until I start carving chapters from the stone of my story and find there’s a different sculpture hidden inside. To be fair, some of my initial ideas wind up on the page but, often as not, later drafts see my well-planned tale head in directions I couldn’t predict any better than the reader who sees the completed version.

What does any of that have to do with the question they asked? Everything in that last paragraph is about how I approach novels. I find my way through, retrace my steps, treat them as discovery.

Short stories—for me, at least—come from a different place.

I’ll still start with a blank page and no immediate sense of direction, but soon the piece takes hold and drives to a conclusion I can sense, if not perfectly nail. I’ll feel the twist ahead and start pushing my protagonist against it, looking for pain or pressure or failure or loss.

Once I know where it’s headed, often the opening lines, paragraphs, or pages of a short story are tossed aside. Then the rest of the writing gets more targeted. Part of the reason is economy: there’s only so much you can cover in a small space. But there’s something else in short stories. Something shared by flash fiction running a few hundred words and longer pieces at several thousand. Something decidedly different from the way a novel tackles a story.

A friend who focuses solely on shorts thinks it has to do with the opportunity a novelist has to meander, to take extra time making a point, to move from one theme to another and weave subplots around the main story. All of that is true, but that’s not all of it. A short story, while often not much more than a moment in time, does have that beginning, middle, and end. And it carries at least one character through a shift. But it has something else. It has thrust.

It’s the ending, or the end state, that takes over when I’m writing one. It’s knowing how things will turn out for the characters I’m following. Exactly how they’ll get there, and how they’ll respond to what the story throws at them may still be a surprise. But what’s propelling them becomes clear, the reason their story exists.

With a novel, I’ll end up with even more clarity about the characters, but it comes about differently. The twists and turns and challenges and defeats that happen over the course of a few dozen chapters are made up of thrusts and parries, of races and pauses, of rises and falls. Together, they form a bigger arc, many arcs in fact,  whether or not the timeline is any different from a short.

Talking in the bar the other night, I spoke of writing short stories as a skill that, like any other, can be learned. I told my students there are authors who only write novels and others who stick to short stories, but that it has more to do with preference and experience than any kind of limitation. There’s more to it than length and focus and I’d love to hear how others approach the difference.  It’ll help me have a better answer the next time the question comes up. So I won’t have to shoot from the hip again.

ROB BRUNET writes character-driven crime fiction laced with dark humor. His debut novel STINKING RICH was listed on Crimespree Magazine’s Book Picks for 2014 and named one of the year’s top debuts by Mystery People. Brunet’s short crime fiction appears in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Crimespree, Noir Nation, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and numerous anthologies. He loves the bush, beaches, and bonfires, and teaches creative writing at George Brown College in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son.

 To learn more about Rob Brunet’s novel, click on the cover below: