But I’m a Novelist — Why Write Short Stories?

Short stories? Really?

G’day, inklings! It’s a beautiful day in the Oklahoma City neighborhood! Remember that horrid heat dome thing I recently vented about? IT’S GONE. As I type this, it’s 11:29 a.m. and 72ºF. My windows are open, and my a/c is off. CAN I GET A HALLELUJAH?!?

But I’m not here to talk about the weather, much as I am in it rejoicing. Today, my lovelies, we’re back to short stories. My recent post Get Shorty elicited the following comment from reader Heather:

I am still terribly confused about the purpose of a short story. Why on earth would we want our stories to be short (unless, of course, they are children’s bedtime stories and then they cannot seem to be short enough for my tastes!).

As I pondered Heather’s question and posted my reply, I realized that others might have the same question and that it was worthy of its own blog post. Why write short stories? What’s the point of creating a world and then only spending a few pages in it? And as I pondered, I also realized that I’ve done a 180 on the subject since last I gave it thought. Oy vey!

So, in case you missed it, here are my thoughts on:

Why Short Stories?

1. I’ve always enjoyed long fiction far more than short. If I’m going to make an emotional commitment to a piece of fiction, I want a full return on my investment! It always seemed like short fiction couldn’t compensate me enough.

But since I’ve started writing my own short stories and reading others’ and reading what others have to say about short fiction, I’ve discovered that some readers feel the exact opposite about short stories. They want the short fiction, because it lets them know if they’re going to like a particular author or not. They can commit a short amount of time to a short piece. If they like it, they’ll invest more time in a longer work. But if they don’t like it, they haven’t lost a lot of time, and they can move on to something else.

In this article, Charlie Jane Anders writes,

You start every story with a certain amount of capital, and that capital is your readers’ attention span. You need to spend that capital wisely.

This rule of thumb applies well to short stories. Short story readers donate only a certain amount of capital. But if we spend it wisely, we can get them to donate more — and it’ll be enough to buy an entire novel.

2. Writing short stories hones our craft. I’ve only recently started realizing this. In a short story, I’ve got a very limited amount of word-space in which to establish character, develop character, develop plot, and transition from scene to sequel to climax to denouement. Since I can’t take my good ol’ easy time about it, I’m more focused on choosing the right words and on cutting unnecessary material.

It’s kind of like blogging vs. Twittering. On my blog, I can expound at length. On Twitter, I’ve got 140 characters with which to say something meaningful. Each tweet must be lean and to the point. The same, I find, applies to short stories: They’re lean and to the point, because they can’t afford not to be.

So, as I learn to fine-tune my short stories, I’m also fine-tuning my skills as a novelist.

3. ________________________________________.

Readers and writers, this one’s for you! Fill in the blank: What benefit do you see in writing short stories?

Or, if you disagree with me on the merits of penning short fiction, you can use #3 to hold forth on that, as well. ; )