BDN Archive – Anatomy of a Short Story

This was originally posted at (no longer available) on August 3, 2011. 

In 2008, I took a class at my local community college.  This class, called Creative Writing: Short Story 1, was a leap of faith for me.  For the most part, I have either written very long works, or very short work.  The very short works are things that are called ‘drabbles’ in the fan fiction world.

Yes, I have written fan fiction.  I may yet write more fan fiction.

No, you may not read it.  Not yet anyway.  It was some of the first writing I ever did, and much of it is terrible.  Not terrible because I am a terrible writer, but terrible because I had no idea what I was doing.

Back on topic, though.

Taking that short story class was very much of a challenge for me.  I submitted my first draft, and my professor asked me if it was a first chapter of a novel!

She told me it was okay if it was, I just needed to let her know, but she would accept it as that.

I was so tempted.

However, I wanted to learn how to work within limits.  I told her, no, I did not intend to make it a first chapter, and she gave me suggestions on how to turn it into a better short story.

The first problem was that there was too much going on.  Actually, that was pretty much the only problem.

(That very first rough draft is what I based my 2009 NaNoWriMo Novel on.  There will be a more extensive post about this later.)

To make this psuedo-first-chapter into a real short story, I had to chop out my favorite character (besides the main character).  This was part of the reason I had to expand it back into a novel later.  That character had to be in there!

A short story is, obviously, short.

For that class, we wrote a very long short story.  Our limit was 5000 words, but no more than 25 pages.

That was very difficult.

As I begin to prepare for the Ozark Creative Writers Conference (the contest deadlines are August 27th – aaaaaaaahhh!), I am daunted by the task of writing short stories that are sometimes no longer than 1200, 1500, or 2000 words.  Sometimes I come across one that has a limit of 3000 words!  Those are gems!

No matter what the length of the short story, there are a few criteria that apply to all of them.

Since it is a short story, it must have a short plot.

This is not an epic journey we are taking, but rather a jaunt to the store.  The plot can’t be too complicated – this was one problem I encountered with my short story.  There was an arranged marriage, a jealous brother, two murders, heartbreak, and sorcery.  Definitely sounds more like a novel than a short story.  I was able to knock it down to just an arranged marriage, one murder, and sorcery.  My husband hated it, but at least I learned to work in the limits.

Since it is a short story, we must be able to relate to the characters quickly.

This means that there can’t be too many characters.  My original story had counts in head six characters – four of them were essential to the plot.  I managed to cut that down to three.  It took some rewriting, but as a short story, it was a much more stable plot.

Conflict and resolution must be easily accomplished.

Not easily accomplished for the characters, but for the reader.  I had so much conflict in the original that it was hard to get involved with the characters.  You need to balance the two.  The crucial question is why should we care about the conflict in the characters lives?

The length you are allowed will depend on the type of conflict you choose for the short story, how many characters can be involved, etc.  It may require editing, or complete rewriting, but a short story can be a work of art.

My favorite short story?

The Beginning of the Armadillos by Rudyard Kipling, in his Just So Stories.

What’s your favorite short story?  If you write, do you have anything to add to what I’ve just said?

What do you think?

About Rebekah

Rebekah Loper writes character-driven epic fantasy featuring resilient women in trying and impossible circumstances who just want to save themselves but usually end up saving the world, often while falling in love.
She lives in Tulsa, OK with her husband, dog, two formerly feral cats, a small flock of feathered dragons (...chickens. They're chickens), and an extensive tea collection. When she's not writing, she battles the Oklahoma elements in an effort to create a productive, permaculture urban homestead.