Ink-Stained Scribe

Learning to Write Short: Part II

I finished a short story that was, like, actually short...and I started another one.

Okay, so, by "short" I mean "under 10k", which is damn short, when you consider most things I write turn out to be more like 130k.

In the six lessons I took with Cat Rambo in her short story class, I managed to isolate some of my problems with writing short:

1. I don't think in terms of immediate conflict.
2. My thoughts for a story's "scope" is usually too big.
3. I like background, especially character background, even if it's not necessary to the immediate conflict (see #1).

I was working on the dragon story during this class, so I'm using that as my example to illustrate these three issues.

Immediate Conflict

I used a world that Adryn and I developed for a novel and set it back about 15 years, exploring a pair of side characters "in their prime". My first mistake was trying to bring the world-level conflict between two cities (which is the conflict of the novel) into the main line of action immediately.

The conflict of the story is a dragon-rider pair deciding whether to destroy the nest their enemy is after, or endanger the city they’ve sworn to protect by refusing to become murderers. The heart of that conflict is not the question of "which side gets the eggs", but "what will they do?"

Well, I complicated things. I tried to start off the story with the two squadrons attacking each other, but it wasn't working. I couldn't get the main characters into that dragon's nest, and the conflict over what to do with the eggs seemed less important when the battle was being held back by the rest of their Wing.

So I chopped it out, deciding to save the aerial fight for the ending.

Story a little crowded? (artist unknown)

My two main characters, Howell and Giddeon, are the leaders of a Wing. I originally had them flying out on patrol with their Wing, randomly spotting the nest, and going in to get as many eggs as possible. But I was having trouble with my narrator, Howell, splitting his attention unnecessarily between getting the eggs, and directing his Wing through his dragon's telepathic bond.

Also, as soon as I took out that opening battle, getting the eggs out became less important. Suddenly, there were lots of dragons to carry the eggs back, lots of dragons to fight off the enemy as soon as they arrived.

Lots of dragons to get in the way of the real question of whether Giddeon's ruthless logic or Howell's compassion would win out.

So I axed them, deciding that patrols would be limited to single dragons to a certain area, for both cities.

And boy did that simplify EVERYTHING.


Just the fact that I was able to go back 15 years with side characters and need no extra planning or character brainstorming should tell you something about how much I like background.

I'm not one of those people who writes out everything about my characters since they were five (okay, well, not ALL of them), but I do tend to know the events that shaped each character--both the circumstances that were out of their control, and the choices they made to get where they are.

In a novel, there's time to explore that. In a short-story, it doesn't matter nearly as much as the present conflict. That's something I have a hard time getting through my head.

See, to me, identifying with a character is part of what I love about stories, and part of that is about knowing where they came from. I'm strongly context-oriented, and part of the reason I read more novels than short stories is that desire to get really, really close with a character.

So excising backstory is hard.

After my first critique session with the story, I was able to cut out quite a bit of backstory, leaving only the crucial information to set up context for a character's actions. In fact, I probably don't even need that (but I'm clinging right now, so we'll see if I get over it).

What are your trouble points with writing short or writing long? How have you changed stories around to better suit the length? How does your "stride" as a writer change between these two forms?