Short fiction is the perfect way to start writing and reading. You can travel to another planet, explore the West, fall in love, and defeat an army of zombies during your lunch break or a sleepy afternoon. Nothing motivates like a sense of accomplishment. Lose five pounds, and it’s easier to lose the next five. Run a 10K, and soon you’re training for a marathon. The world of short stories is where you can work on your craft or pick up the habit of reading.
With so much vying for our attention, work, children, household chores, pets, Netflix, video games, movies, podcasts, music, and more, it’s challenging to squeeze in time to devour a novel or an exciting biography. That’s why many authors like short stories.
I like them for getting into the reading habit and the writing habit. I want them for those moments when I can steal a few moments—but only a few moments—to read or to write.
Neil Gaiman likes them best when written as the last chapter of a novel. George Saunders credits them for developing his voice. Margret Atwood still takes jaunts in the world of short stories.
You can finish a story in a single sitting
Or two. Flash fiction is under 400-words, and drabble is 100-words, which you can consume in less time than responding to a Facebook post. But short stories tend to run between 2,000 and 10,000 words, with most publishers preferring fiction less than 4,000 words. And it’s a complete story with an entire story arc, characters, and conflict—everything you’d get in a novel but in less time. Pour a cup of coffee. By the time you drain the last drop, you’ll finish the story.
Shorts get right into the action
When you’re writing a story that’s only 3,000 words long, you don’t have a lot of time to spare with setting or purple prose. You need to jump right into the story. Typically, the conflict is apparent right from the start or by the third paragraph. And there are fewer characters. A novel may have a cast of thousands, but a short story focuses on less than five and, in many cases, just two. A good rule of thumb is one character per thousand words.
Here are the opening two paragraphs of my alternative history story, Soon We Will Leave This Country:
“He was fifteen. Orphaned with four dead siblings and a brother who served with Chivington back home. Finney was driving freight to stage stops along the Butterfield line and had seen the young men who drove for Phineas Banning as they passed at different points in the Sonoran. Saw their camp a mile away. It was on the moonscape desert rise near Scissors Crossing between the wet Imperial Valley and the cool coastal mountains where the sun-scorched the day and the stars burned the night, and blast furnace winds blew that as he broke camp and gathered the horses from the picket-line he had tied between two small mesquite trees — men descended on him. Their uniforms betrayed the armies they had deserted: Mexican, Confederate, Union, and they were after his load of goods.
Banning’s boys came out of the ocotillo forest. The oldest whipping the team, the youngest firing rifles from each hip. The rain of bullets frightened the bandits off, and on that morning, Finney became friends with Virgil and Wyatt.”
I could almost end the story right there but instead there was much more to tell. There’s always more to tell, and shorts train you to cut the string of story into tighter lengths. It’s an economic lesson that all authors must learn.
It’s a convenient way to check out new authors or genres
Want to try alternative history fiction? How about science fiction? Horror? Westerns? Fantasy? Or Erotica? Short stories are a cheap and easy introduction into these worlds. You can suck down three or four before deciding that perhaps, horror fiction is not something you want or that a rousing space opera is. Don’t like a particular story? Oh well, turn the page in an anthology, and there’s another that might be more to your liking.
As a writer, I’ll have three stories going and another three that I’m peddling to publishers. Short stories allow me the luxury of investing a lot of time and a lot of edits into perfecting the language or the action. I had a short story back in 2017 and didn’t send it to publishers until 2021. I just couldn’t get a grip on the pace and language. If it were a novel, I would’ve abandoned the project, but as a short story, I could keep picking it up from time to time and work on it until I had it just the way I liked it.
And I’m not alone. Many writers save experimentation for short stories. Many others work on their craftsmanship with their short fiction, a month of working on a short story versus a month framing a novel. For the writer, it’s a chance for artistic improvement, but you can often reap the benefits as a reader.
On experimentation, some styles work great in short fiction form that would never hold a reader’s attention for the length of a novel. These don’t come along very often, but when they do, they are gems.
And it costs less
Fictive Dream, Hobart, Penduline Press, Bewildering Stories, and the Saturday Evening Post online are all free. Others are at a low cost. Most universities kick out a literary journal each year for less than five bucks with dozens of short stories and poems. You can buy anthologies and collections from Kindle for $2.99 or free if you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited.
Who writes short fiction?
Alice Monro, Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, George Saunders, T.C. Boyle, Jennifer Egan – a who’s who of literature are equally known for their short fiction.
“I’m going to marry my novels and have little short stories for children.”
The Toilet is a Good Place to Read
Our reading time ideal is to sit down with a cup of tea, a plate of scones, with a gentle rain pattering outside in the garden, a blessed afternoon of peace and solitude reading a good book. Time rarely allows such luxury. The toilet is a good place. The bus or train if you’re a commuter, eating lunch, working out, waiting at the doctor’s or dentist’s office. It can be two minutes or twenty minutes.
Read when you can, wherever you can. It’s not about volume; it’s about habit.
No one can tell you where those free moments in your busy day are, and honestly, I kind of resent it when they do; you must discover them for yourself. That’s what makes the habit stick. Someone telling you to set aside a half-hour every day between this time and that time will not work. Someone telling you to skip watching your favorite TV show is not going to work. Learning to steal moments when you can, is going to stick.
Ah, and that’s the beauty of short stories—how wonderfully portable they are. They can fit in the tightest schedules. An entire story! Think of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, Ernest Hemingway’s Indian Camp, and Richard Matheson’s Duel. Stephen King introduced us to the Lawnmower Man, and Brokeback Mountain began as an Annie Proux short story.
Short stories are lovely journeys that will get you home in time for supper, and for the writer, they are training grounds where you find the tricks you need to put in your kit, and where you’ll learn your primal yawp.