Why Do You Love Reading/Writing Short Stories?

Margaret Note Spelling

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I have a little problem, more interesting than crucial.

I've recently considered writing short stories for publishing in order to get some immediate use (money and practice) out of my passion for writing, while I continue to develop the world and characters and plot of the series that I'm planning to write. I like the thought of short stories; when I consider writing short stories about any of the characters I've developed for use in my larger world, I'm immediately trying to figure out how it would fit into the main plot, how it would explore lesser-known parts of the world, etc.

However.

Since the world-building for these series isn't fully developed, and I'm not willing to use their characters/settings in a published work just yet, I've been trying to develop standalone short stories, ones with new characters, set in separate scifi or fantasy universes with different rules. The trouble is, I'm having difficulty actually caring about those new characters and those new worlds. I've thought about why, and I think it's for the same reason I don't actually read very many short stories anyway, even though I do like them in concept--I know I'm only going to be living with them for a few thousand words, after which absolutely everything is done and left behind. The story just can't feel very important to me. Someone will spend half an hour or less reading it--or, in the case of short stories that I read, I'll spend half an hour or less reading it--and then nobody will ever see those characters or that situation again. We only knew that world and those characters for a flicker of a moment.

My feeling (not judgement, just my emotional reaction to knowing all this in the back of my mind) is that if this story had really worthwhile characters and worthwhile ideas--things worth investing genuine emotion and imagination in, as a reader--the author would have written it in longer form and dealt full justice to every part of the idea. Short stories, despite their reputation for necessitating elegant, concise writing and "cutting out the fluff," are obviously forced to leave out plenty of things which, since we don't know what they might have been, will always have the potential to be just as enjoyable as what stayed in--especially when they're written by an author who's consistently competent. The fact that the author didn't include anything more implies that the author believed there was nothing more to be said--that there was never anything more worth being told about the story in the first place. For instance, O. Henry's stories, which probably comprise the bulk of all short stories I've read, are consistently clever, funny, and compel me to keep reading, and yet at the end of reading ten I'm left with the feeling that I've wasted my time, because none of the ten ideas mattered enough to the author to be more than a few pages long. Anything that stays merely a short story, to my writer's subconscious, stays irrelevant. "Oh, the author didn't think the idea was worth going into with any more detail."

Again, I'm not saying I've thought about it and decided this makes sense. It's not a judgement. It's a feeling. A sense of futility I get every time I start reading, or thinking about reading, a short story.

And yet I want to like short stories. Many of my favorite authors have written short stories, and it's a way of playing around with the skills I love without committing years or more to a full book/series that requires massively detailed worldbuilding and plot logic and consequences for future books down the line. I've written a 15,000-word short story myself that I'm still in the process of revising, but 15,000 is actually pretty long for a short story these days, and anyway, it's already become part of a planned chronology of short stories/novels all set in the same universe. I'll be with those main characters and that world for a long time yet!

Basically what I'm asking for is--please, help me to learn to like short stories! Why do you like them? I know there are people who love them, and I want to love them, too. I just can't help feeling that to write one is to deal with an idea that would never have mattered very much anyway. Why do short story ideas matter? As a short story reader, I've never spent enough time with any characters or world to really start caring about it as more than "just a pretty idea," no matter how well crafted. Therefore, I don't know why I should care about my own.
 
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WSDuffy

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I like writing and reading short stories because it allows me to hone down on just what I care about most in a story. In a short story, I can talk about just one character in a way that is simply not possible in a novel. It also allows me to focus on a single aspect of a world or idea that I am interested in, rather than having to wonder about all the implications of it for an entire world. There are no "muddy middles", no scaffolding, no adding subthemes and subplots to prop up the main idea. Just me and the thing that actually made me want to put pen to paper. At its best, writing a short story can feel like eating a single incredible piece of chocolate as opposed to the novel's five course meal. The intensity of the transformative experience is only enhanced by its brevity.
 

DLCroix

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The trouble is, I'm having difficulty actually caring about those new characters and those new worlds.

That also happens to the authors. It feels some fatigue just thinking about designing a new world with its own conditions and knowing that it will only exist for 5-7k of that particular story. I suppose that for some reason Ursula K. Le Guin made series of stories but set in the same world of Earthsea, so as not to be forced to think about creating another world.
However, I believe that writing short stories is excellent training to learn to write shorter novels precisely because of that need to be concise.
Or, what I have discovered over time, is also a good system for training lateral thinking. Let me see how to explain it. Suppose you are writing a novel. Well, in my view, that corresponds to a certain creative process that is developing in your mind. But, and here the interesting thing about the matter, when you write a story based on the same world of that novel, you create another creative process, that is to say, different. But, in addition, this second process underway, at least for me, helped me create other characteristics that I then actually applied to the novel. I think what happens is that, by focusing on a smaller goal, you free yourself from the anxiety that the larger project produces and therefore allows you to be more creative. The very fact of thinking that if that story fails nothing happens it helps you enormously.
However, writing stories has other benefits as well. Somehow you start to conceive each chapter of a novel as a story, something ends with each chapter, in such a way that at the end you have a novel that is basically a kind of camouflaged anthology. :ninja:
 

Biskit

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A few thoughts:
As others will tell you, shorts and novels are very different beasts.

Shorts need to be focused, and still have all those "worthwhile characters and worthwhile ideas", or at least something to make them interesting.
World-building in shorts can be a very different thing, and has to be done with minimal detail, especially for flash fiction, because you don't have space to do anything.

Shorts can be hugely liberating because there isn't that long-term commitment. If a story is a bust, then so be it, bin it and move on. I did a letter from a phoenix to its next incarnation and once I had written it, I binned it because it was rubbish. Then I tried again and got it right, which is not too daunting when it's a 1k flash. I had a similar experience writing a piece for a live-reading event - first version was rubbish and got binned, second version (i.e start again and write it differently) really resonated with the audience. :giggle:

I've managed to do a 1k flash for a monthly story prompt for the last few years and only missed a couple of months. I did a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy that prompted someone to ask if I had written any more, a serial killer breaking up with one of the heads in his (or her, because I never specified that detail) freezer, a silly fantasy about a magical quest which was simply loaded with musical jokes to deliver one awful pun at the end on the prompt word. Shorts can really set you free to play.

(All of these stories are available for the simple effort of a mouse click to my blog. :giggle: )

ETA: There's a fine collection of flash fiction examples to be found here... Kraxon
 
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Wayne Mack

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The trouble is, I'm having difficulty actually caring about those new characters and those new worlds.
Maybe your subconscious mind is trying to tell you something. Why not continue with your novel or series, if that is where your current interest lies?

There is nothing wrong with writing short stories, but if you are trying to force yourself to do it, then I doubt you will gain much benefit. I suggest work on getting your initial novel written. It sounds like the novel is where your passion lies, so follow that.

Nothing will teach you more about novel writing than writing a novel. If you feel you are ready to start writing something, write what interests you most. Often it is the first paragraph that is the hardest to write, so just go ahead and do it. Best of luck and remember to write what you enjoy.
 

alexvss

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I have a little problem, more interesting than crucial.

I've recently considered writing short stories for publishing in order to get some immediate use (money and practice) out of my passion for writing, while I continue to develop the world and characters and plot of the series that I'm planning to write. I like the thought of short stories; when I consider writing short stories about any of the characters I've developed for use in my larger world, I'm immediately trying to figure out how it would fit into the main plot, how it would explore lesser-known parts of the world, etc.

However.

Since the world-building for these series isn't fully developed, and I'm not willing to use their characters/settings in a published work just yet, I've been trying to develop standalone short stories, ones with new characters, set in separate scifi or fantasy universes with different rules. The trouble is, I'm having difficulty actually caring about those new characters and those new worlds. I've thought about why, and I think it's for the same reason I don't actually read very many short stories anyway, even though I do like them in concept--I know I'm only going to be living with them for a few thousand words, after which absolutely everything is done and left behind. The story just can't feel very important to me. Someone will spend half an hour or less reading it--or, in the case of short stories that I read, I'll spend half an hour or less reading it--and then nobody will ever see those characters or that situation again. We only knew that world and those characters for a flicker of a moment.

My feeling (not judgement, just my emotional reaction to knowing all this in the back of my mind) is that if this story had really worthwhile characters and worthwhile ideas--things worth investing genuine emotion and imagination in, as a reader--the author would have written it in longer form and dealt full justice to every part of the idea. Short stories, despite their reputation for necessitating elegant, concise writing and "cutting out the fluff," are obviously forced to leave out plenty of things which, since we don't know what they might have been, will always have the potential to be just as enjoyable as what stayed in--especially when they're written by an author who's consistently competent. The fact that the author didn't include anything more implies that the author believed there was nothing more to be said--that there was never anything more worth being told about the story in the first place. For instance, O. Henry's stories, which probably comprise the bulk of all short stories I've read, are consistently clever, funny, and compel me to keep reading, and yet at the end of reading ten I'm left with the feeling that I've wasted my time, because none of the ten ideas mattered enough to the author to be more than a few pages long. Anything that stays merely a short story, to my writer's subconscious, stays irrelevant. "Oh, the author didn't think the idea was worth going into with any more detail."

Again, I'm not saying I've thought about it and decided this makes sense. It's not a judgement. It's a feeling. A sense of futility I get every time I start reading, or thinking about reading, a short story.

And yet I want to like short stories. Many of my favorite authors have written short stories, and it's a way of playing around with the skills I love without committing years or more to a full book/series that requires massively detailed worldbuilding and plot logic and consequences for future books down the line. I've written a 15,000-word short story myself that I'm still in the process of revising, but 15,000 is actually pretty long for a short story these days, and anyway, it's already become part of a planned chronology of short stories/novels all set in the same universe. I'll be with those main characters and that world for a long time yet!

Basically what I'm asking for is--please, help me to learn to like short stories! Why do you like them? I know there are people who love them, and I want to love them, too. I just can't help feeling that to write one is to deal with an idea that would never have mattered very much anyway. Why do short story ideas matter? As a short story reader, I've never spent enough time with any characters or world to really start caring about it as more than "just a pretty idea," no matter how well crafted. Therefore, I don't know why I should care about my own.
I’ve been obsessed with short-stories for the last couple years. I read a lot, and I write a lot. The reason why is because I want to get published in the “bigger” magazines. It’s quick to write a short-story, and most markets have fast responses to submissions (when they reject you, but still).

Poe used to say that short-stories are superior to novels because you can read the former in just one sitting. Joyce Carol Oates says in her MasterClass that writing short-stories convey an immediate sense of work well-done. Novels just don’t have that. It may take years to write a single novel, or you may even never finish writing one. This leads to extreme frustration.

I’d suggest that you take regular breaks from your longer WIPs to write a piece or two of short-fiction. And you don’t even need to try and publish it. It could be just for training. There are authors with hundreds of short-stories in their trunks, and they never submitted a single one of them.

About feeling like a waste of time, maybe you should try authors that write stories with open endings. That way, the story lingers with you and it’s your job to finish it. I’d recommend Haruki Murakami.
 

paranoid marvin

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As I've mentioned elsewhere, I think that ghost/spooky stories greatly benefit from their shortness. You simply can't keep the tension over 400 pages that you can over 8-10.

I think the challenge with short stories is to get the reader into the mood of the story and to care about the fate of the protagonist. Whereas a longer story gives the author a chance to fit in a whole backstory for them, the shortened versions have to do this with generalisation and suggestions.

One obvious suggestion is to read and take part in the 75 and 300 word challenges, and see the various techniques used to circumnavigate the restriction of words with strategic use of key words and phrases. If you don't mind a spooky tale , try some of M R James' ghost stories (none more than a few pages long) which are the perfect length for what they set out to achieve.
 

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