Respect the Short Story

I’ve been a fan of short stories since I was a kid. I have predominantly read science fiction, fantasy and horror, and I think the short story form suits those genres particularly well. I suspect other genres work just fine but I don’t have the same breadth of experience there. Today, I’d like to just express a few of my thoughts on why short stories have more value than people tend to think.

Explore ideas faster – In my favorite umbrella genre, speculative fiction, I tend to think of stories as extensions of interesting ideas. And for better or worse, ideas come to me faster than I can possibly keep up with. If I were to write a novel wrapped around every fascinating idea, I would never get to explore a fraction of them before I die of old age. I need to be able to crank out stories based on these ideas quickly and move on before three more ideas spring into place. My muse is merciless – it’s like a damned hydra.

Focus on the idea – In the course of writing a novel, the reader expects many things. You must have a well-developed plot, satisfying character arcs and development, twists, drama, comedy, action and a whole host of other things. But in a short story, you’re generally allowed to pass over all but a few items on that list. Due to the restrictive word count, you need to focus – either on the characters, the plot, the setting, the atmosphere, etc. If you try to do it all, it will either be bloated, or just feel thin across the board. For me, being able to focus on the idea that won’t leave my brain is the key element. I can just create enough dressing around the idea for verisimilitude and then really wallow in the idea itself. So much fun!

Greater variety – For any given author, depending on their level of prolific output, they need to settle into a niche or formula, otherwise they have difficulty perfecting the recipe that their readers have come to expect. A short story writer does not necessarily have to deal with this. Given that the stories are shorter and faster to write, they can afford to stray from the beaten path constantly because the stakes aren’t as high as alienating your entire audience. The spice of life, indeed.

Experimentation is key – Too often I see writers producing the same safe stuff over and over, because of the level of commitment involved and the need to succeed. If they spend years on a project and it really just doesn’t work for anyone, then they’ve almost wasted their time. I say “almost” because I think that time actually did achieve something, just not what they intended. With the short story, it’s liberating in that experiments are fast and cheap. If it doesn’t work, move on and spin up a new experiment. That’s how mad scientists are made!