How to Keep a Story Short

When it comes to writing short fiction, sometimes it can be difficult keeping the word count low. In this post, as part of my NaNoWriMo series, we’ll take a look at three tips for keeping a story short. This is essential if you’re planning on writing a short story a day for NaNoWriMo, if you know how long each one is meant to be.

What makes a short story?

A short story is like any other story – it needs a beginning, a middle and an end, and should actually say something. It helps to understand general word count ranges for different lengths of story.

  • 0-7,500 words – Short story
  • 7,500-17,500 words – Novelette
  • 17,500-40,000 words – Novella
  • 40,000+ words – Novel

It’s imperfect, because everyone disagrees about one thing or another. Some people will specify word counts for flash fiction differently, whether it’s up to 100, 250, 500 or 1,000 words, and others will insert a noveletta into the mix, as well as specify word count ranges specific to genres.

With that in mind, how do you keep your word count down?

Start as close to the end as possible

The less build-up you have to do, the less time you need to spend wrapping up.

We don’t need to know how everything happened, just that it did, and pick a moment near the end to focus on. This will help you avoid the sort of set-up that a novel requires, and protects the short story from going stale before it’s gone anywhere else.

Introduce the premise, character and their motivation as quickly as possible

We should know everything we need to know from the get-go, especially for fiction of less than 1,000 words. 

If a character’s relationship with their father isn’t important to the story, you don’t need to mention it. If a character’s motivation is to become an astronaut, the story should be about that. 

Ideally, aim smaller: the character just needs to get through an interview, or a lunch, or get somewhere on time. Big motivations, long-term goals, are for novels, unless we’re close to the end.

Short-term goals, things a character can achieve in a day or less, are better suited for short fiction. And always refer back to the previous tip.

Outline in 3-5 bullet points

If you need 20 bullet points to plot your story, it won’t be short. Keep it simple. Refer back to the previous tips.

Your plan for your story can follow something like this:

  • Introduce the premise, the character and their motivation.
  • Introduce an obstacle.
  • Explore how the character will overcome the obstacle.
  • Climax.
  • Conclusion. Wrap it all up.

Write about moments, and let the story end, no matter how much you love the characters (or what you get to do to them.) That’s the key to making it short. If you like the characters, and you haven’t killed them all by the end, you can always write another story about them. Arthur Conan Doyle did it with Sherlock Holmes.

Do you have to plan?

Technically no, but I know a lot of people who try to write without a plan and end up going way over their target word count. Planning your story will help you figure out exactly how much will happen in it. Likewise, if you know how many words you’re allowed to write – if you’re writing for a submission to an anthology, magazine or competition – you need to be able to plan your story accordingly.

What’s next?

My NaNo prep series is done, at least this time around. Ahead of the July Camp session, I may write another series, covering other topics.

In the meantime, my own collection of short fiction,Tales of the Fantastical, is currently available on Amazon. You can download some sample stories below by signing up to my newsletter.

The Time to Write

Any creative act takes time. Novels happen to take a lot of time, even just to get a first draft. That’s fine. When you’ve done it a couple of times, you expect to spend a large portion of your available time sitting at a keyboard, working away. NaNoWriMo just happens to require that you condense the experience into a month. In this blog post, we’re going to look at some tips on making time, and making the most of what you’ve got.

Making time out of nothing

Finding the time to write is difficult, especially if you’re working full-time and/or raising children. During the time when I was minding my niece, my productivity went way down. When I was working in an office 9-5, my available time was gone, too. You learn to make time out of nothing.

Set time aside

The first thing to remember is that the time won’t just appear out of nowhere. You have to make it. Spend a few minutes and take note of how you spend your days. Are you staying in bed long after you wake? Are you playing games on your phone, or browsing social media for an hour?

What’s the least important thing in your day? What can you give up at the drop of a hat?

You already have time to write if you spend time doing nothing. Try to set aside a couple of hours in your day to work on your novel. They don’t need to be consecutive blocks of time, but they should be whole blocks, and you shouldn’t include the time it takes to make tea and power up your laptop. Remove distractions before you get started. That hour is your writing time.

Try the Pomodoro Technique

The simple version of the Pomodoro Technique is this: set a timer for 25 minutes, work for that period, take a five minute break, and then work for another 25 minutes. Starting and stopping with the timer is important. The break is necessary.

Using this as a guide, you can fit two Pomodoros into an hour block, and wind down before you need to do anything else.

If you think 25 minutes is too long, try 20 minutes. During NaNoWriMo, I’ll be helping the Dublin region by running some writing sprints of that length of time throughout the day. When we did it in November 2019 for a couple of hours, three times a day, many members wrote several thousand additional words over their average, and productivity as a whole increased.

Write faster

This piece of advice is kind of a cheat. The faster you write, the more you’ll get done. The truth is, the more you write, it’s likely that you’ll get faster. Some people find this statement is true even of a single sitting – the longer they go without having to stop for an extended period in the middle of the day, the more words they can write.

The time making formula

This blog post has been about highlighting three ways of increasing the amount of writing you can get done in a day. To recap:

  • Set aside time you already have
  • Use blocks of time to work
  • Write regularly as training for writing more

Combined these three things can help you make the time you need to write 50,000 words in a month. Or more. Many overachieve. It doesn’t necessarily make them better writers, just people who can make more use of the time in the day to write.

What if you don’t write novels?

These techniques are aimed at NaNoWriMo as an event, but are applicable to writing generally. I’ve done this for writing comics, short stories, blog posts, and more. Time is limited, but creativity isn’t.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the writing of short stories instead of a novel, and my simple tips for keeping a story short.

How do you turn an idea into a plot?

Sometimes, all you have is a single idea. These can come from a stray thought when you’re out for a walk or taking a shower, or a prompt, or a dream. The problem with only having an idea is that it doesn’t really go anywhere. In this blog post, as part of preparation for NaNoWriMo, we’re going to look at how to turn an idea into a plot.

What’s the big idea?

A story is usually made up of a few key elements: the plot, the characters, and the setting, through which we understand the theme and the meaning of the story. That’s a simplification to highlight that the plot is just one piece you need to work on, but one that can help guide the rest of the process. And it all starts with an idea.

Asking the important questions

A plot is based on events, and an idea can help inform them. I expand on this process with my Pocket Prompts, with a completed series on the card ‘Something Explodes’, but the general process behind expanding an idea into a plot is to ask key questions of it. For example:

  • What happens if you take your prompt literally, or figuratively?
  • Who is affected by the idea that prompts your plot?
  • If the idea is for an event, when does it take place?
  • If the idea is for a place, is it a place to visit, a place to leave, or a place to avoid?
  • If the idea is for a character, are they your protagonist, your antagonist, or a side character along the way?
  • What happens if you turn your idea on its head and do the opposite?

Expanding an Explosion

As I mentioned above, I’ve completed this process with the Something Explodes card from my Pocket Prompts. The complete series of articles goes into detail on why I ask particular questions and add certain details. In the end, one card produced 9 ideas for stories.

Everyone interprets differently

One thing that writers tend to be wary of is sharing their ideas. They’re afraid someone will steal them. Odds are, if someone says that online, they’re likely to get the following response:

There are no original ideas.

Everything has already been written. Being a writer isn’t about being 100% original, it’s about writing about something in a new way. Every idea has been done in one way or another, but how an individual writer tackles it will always be different. (Unless, of course, you ask a class of 11 year old boys to write a short story – in my personal experience, at least half a dozen will end with a volcano eruption killing everyone.)

How do you create a character?

There are dozens of resources on making characters – I’m in the middle of making my own as a compliment to Pocket Prompts and 25 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block – but the major thing I’ve learned when writing is that the more I know about them, the easier it is to write about them.

Ask questions about them. Focus on key personal details, like family names, their job, their appearance, for a start. Then, when you have an image of them in your head, find out their why.

Why are they going on an adventure/running for local office/trying to kill that one guy?

The why informs the plot, and how the character will navigate it.

How do you plan a book?

That’s for tomorrow, when we’ll look at a quick-plan method for the writer on a tight deadline. With April fast approaching – and Camp NaNoWriMo with it – we’re all in that boat.

Pocket Prompt Expansion: Something Explodes #8 – Endings and Beginnings

So far, while looking at the ‘Something explodes’ card, we’ve looked at types of explosions and Cause & Effect. For the final post in this series, before we move onto other cards and other ways of utilising them, we’re going to look the explosion’s position in the narrative.

We’ll start with one key question: Is this the start or beginning of something?

Explosions cause change, one way or another, and can either alter a story before it begins or punctuate a character’s arc. Two stories about the events of 9/11 – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Remember Me – look at the explosions of the World Trade Centre at different points in the narrative. One uses the plane crash to launch a character’s story after the death of his father, while the other uses the death of the protagonist to roll out emotional conflict with other characters in the story.

For this post, I want you to answer a few questions that will help you figure out how an explosion can change the narrative.

  • Does the explosion occur before or after the story begins?
  • Is the explosion something that happens as a result of actions in the story, or does it sneak up on the reader as a twist?
  • How early into the story will there be a story?
  • How much do we know about what happened?
  • How much more information comes is revealed as the plot unfolds?
  • Do we ever really understand?
  • Are you ending on an explosion? Why?

Whether an explosion – be it literal or emotional – takes place before, at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a story affects the sort of consequences that can be felt by it, and the type of story you’re telling. If the explosion is the climax of the tale, you’ll want it to appear later. If it is the premise on which your story is based, it’ll need to happen early enough into the book that the fallout can be felt.

This is true for both literal and emotional explosions. For those of us who focus on the narrative of relationships, a focus on emotional explosions is essential. Some questions you might ask:

  • Do the people involved rely on each other?
  • Are they separated as a result of an argument?
  • Are they stuck together, even if they don’t like it?
  • Have they been fighting since before the narrative begins?
  • Does the reader know this?
  • How does their meeting affect the story? Will they meet at all? Is that the point?
  • If a story is entirely about the relationship, what causes it to grow or break down? What can you do to leave suggestions over what might happen? Can you introduce a twist?

Whether you choose to start or end with a bang is up to you. Explosions within a story can cause a dramatic shift in the dynamics of your characters, and bring out the best or worst behaviour in people. Use tension to your advantage, and answer as many questions as you can about how you’ll use an explosion in your story.

Have you got your deck of Pocket Prompts yet? Order a set today!

Pocket Prompt Expansion: Something Explodes #7 – Prevention

Something explodes, a bomb, a volcano, emotional tension…but can it be prevented?

So far we’ve looked at Cause & Effect in the sense that it’s a set thing, but is there something your characters could have done to prevent it from happening altogether? In this post, we’re going to look at the magical time travel of hindsight.

As with previous posts in this series, we’ll look at the literal explosions first, and ask a few choice questions to help uncover what could have been changed to affect the story in different ways.

  • If a bomb exploded, could they have caught the person or people responsible beforehand? Were there warning signs?
  • If there is an infrastructural cause to an explosion, such as a gas leak, could inspections have prevented it? Is there a reason why there weren’t inspections in the past?
  • Were warning signs ignored by the people with any authority to do anything about it?
  • If the explosion isn’t a once-off event, what can be done by your characters to prevent a repeat?

As far as human actions are concerned, there are things we can do to make changes to prevent an incident. When it comes to nature, we need to look at things a little differently.

  • Does the technology exist to predict the explosion?
  • Was anything done to alleviate the fallout of the explosion? (e.g. a volcano erupting)
  • Did anyone warn about impending disaster?
  • Were they ignored? If yes, why?
  • Is the character unreliable? Do they have a backstory that marred their reputation?
  • Are those with the power to act unwilling to put resources into making change?

When it comes to genre fiction, we can see a lot of opportunity for predicting disasters and making changes. Whether you want to introduce time travel into your narrative, or substitute ‘something explodes’ for ‘a kaiju arrives at Tokyo’, we can examine a growing number of ways to turn the card into more than just an explosion, and treat prevention as a matter of changing the past instead of the future.

How about emotional explosions? Most arguments are avoidable. Answer the questions below to explore how an emotional explosion might be prevented.

  • Is someone overstepping boundaries?
  • Are people purposely using language that they know will be hurtful?
  • Are people putting their own needs ahead of the other characters?
  • If both characters know the intent of the other involved, does that make things better or worse?
  • How much of what your characters are arguing about is a result of something that happened recently, and how much is a result of long-term tension building?
  • Is there a dominant person in the relationship? Have they used their position in the relationship to overshadow the other person?

There are many more ways to look at this, from positive and negatives points of view. Emotional explosions are often the result of someone containing something for too long, whether it’s hope or sadness, regret, expectation or a grudge.

The key thing to look at it is how to use the long-term relationship between characters, and individuals’ personal histories, to influence how a narrative plays out. This can also affect man-made explosions, and cases of people ignoring the evidence in front of them that would otherwise prevent an explosion. Personal biases and undisclosed histories from before a story begins can be used to alter the plot of your story, and help determine whether something could have been avoided.

Have you got your deck of Pocket Prompts yet? Order a set today!

Pocket Prompt Expansion: Something Explodes #6 – The Aftermath

In our discourse about explosions – a sentence I never thought I’d write – we’ve looked at the sort of explosion, the cause of the explosion, and began to look at the aftermath. Today, we’re solely focusing on how the world looks after the explosion.

Literal explosions are maybe easier to imagine for this, so we’ll ease into the discussion today that way, and expand as we go. Some simple questions to get you started:

  • Is there a death toll?
  • Was a key piece of infrastructure damaged?
  • Is the location of the story shut down as a result of the explosion?
  • Are there police out to contain crowds?
  • Are there riots?
  • If it was localised, how is the neighbourhood effected?
  • If it is distant, how many people witnessed it?

Other things you might want to consider:

  • What sort of scale was this explosion?
  • Was it nuclear? How does the fallout affect the plot?
  • Does your story include magic? How does a magical explosion change the plot?
  • Does your story include elements of sci-fi? Are there aliens? Are there robots? What does a sci-fi explosion do your world?
  • If the explosion is a natural disaster, are you character caught in the middle of it? What is there role? Civilian or rescue worker?

There are many other ways to interpret this, and I’d love to hear some ideas in the comments. In the meantime, we’ll move onto the aftermath of an emotional explosion.

Emotions can run high for a number of reasons, as we explored in the second post for this card. A story can greatly shift as a result of either good or bad news. Use the following questions to prompt a further exploration of the aftermath of an emotional explosion, and see what other questions you might be able to ask and answer.

  • Is there an argument? Does it cause characters to stop talking?
  • If yes, will you write both points of view?
  • Will the characters make up? What is necessary to bring them back together?
  • How does your protagonist losing a close friend or loved one affect their story?
  • How does your protagonist cope after an argument?
  • Who is responsible?

Shifting away from anger and towards happiness:

  • If your protagonist received good news, how will this change their life?
  • Will their emotional state shift from happiness into something else?
  • Will others understand and be supportive?
  • What can go wrong to disrupt the happiness your protagonist feels?
  • How can your protagonist use their optimism to keep going?

The same sorts of questions can be asked about any sort of emotional explosion. The key points to focus on are the parties involved, how their relationship is affected, who is responsible, whether people are supportive, and what can or has to change for things to either move forward or go back to the way they were before.

In future posts, we’ll look at long-term consequences of the explosion, and explore how the story might be different if things could be prevented, covering both literal and emotional explosions.

Have you got your deck of Pocket Prompts yet? Order a set today!

Pocket Prompt Expansion: Something Explodes #5 – Getting Political

In previous posts, we’ve explored literal and emotional explosions, dire consequences and Cause & Effect, and I promised we’d explore that more as the expansion of the ‘Something Explodes’ card continues.

When discussing Cause & Effect, and specifically when focusing on something so charged as an explosion, one question must be asked that, unfortunately, rings through the news on a regular basis: is it political?

Without getting too deep into current affairs, the political nature of an explosion, literal or emotional, can have a rolling effect on the entire story, and can inspire the origins of a much wider plot than you originally attempted to write about.

In this post, we’ll look at the multiple ways of writing politics.

The first thing most people might think of is extremism, so we’ll start there, and ask a few keys questions:

  • Is the political position in opposition to how your protagonist feels?
  • Is your protagonist affected by the explosion?
  • Does the explosion take place near your protagonist (e.g. in their hometown, or the place they’re living) or is it a faraway experience that drives conversation and controversy?
  • Is the political movement old, or is it a new level of extremism?

Answering those questions can help uncover a number of major plot points for your story, and guide the emotional fallout of the explosion for the rest of the narrative arc.

Another point you might want to look at with regards to politics and explosions: is there a political rally occurring in your story? If the plot, or a subplot, centres around an election or a dictatorship, how would an explosion disrupt one side’s attempts to gain popularity, or increase the notoriety of the marginalised position? Further questions you might want to ask:

  • Is your protagonist on the marginalised side of the political debate?
  • Is the explosion designed to injure or to inspire terror?
  • Who orchestrated the explosion?
  • Who benefits from the explosion?
  • What does the fallout of the explosion look like for all parties involved?

With those questions asked, we can move on from the literal explosions that centre around politics, and move onto emotional explosions.

During elections, emotions are raised. Families can argue. Neighbours can fight. Use the following questions to help guide the emotional stakes of a political event in your story:

  • Is your protagonist at odds with their family, friends, neighbours or co-workers?
  • How is the general public acting against controversy? Are there protests? Are they peaceful?
  • How is your protagonist involved in the politics?
  • What is on the line that has caused emotions to get raised? (Some examples from recent history: voting rights, abortion, divorce, legalising drugs, marriage rights.)
  • What can your protagonist do to escape the political drama?

Whether we like it or not, politics are a major aspects of our daily lives. We don’t need literal explosions in faraway regions of the world to inspire debate and discussion, and we don’t always need controversy to get riled up. Remembering to write about the political background of your story can be a game changer in making your world-building more believable and engaging.

And, if you really need the push, a political event can shift the entire focus of your story and raise the stakes of your plot from something that affects your protagonist to something that affects their entire city, country, or world.

Have you got your deck of Pocket Prompts yet? Order a set today!

Pocket Prompt Expansion: Something Explodes #4 – Cause & Effect

So far, we’ve looked at types of explosions and how to use them in a story, and a disastrous (or hyperbolic) consequence of the explosion. Now it’s time to look a little further back: cause.

Every story has a beginning, middle and end, and even if we begin with the explosion, the root explanation for it can – and should – inspire a lot more to come later.

We’ll be spending more time on this in the coming posts, but for now we’re going to look at Cause & Effect.

Both the name of an okay movie and an element of quantum theory, the Butterfly Effect suggests that one tiny action can have huge consequences given enough time. Writers shouldn’t consider themselves trapped by genre when it comes to science.

A small action can roll forward in any story. In Stranger Than Fiction, Will Ferrell’s life is changed because he resets his watch to just a few seconds behind his schedule. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted only meets the Mother because, one day long before, he found her umbrella and was using it as his own. In Game of Thrones, the Stark children are only separated because Ned decided to pursue the idea that the king might have an illegitimate heir.

You don’t need to look so close at the finer details, of course. You could seek to explain your explosion as either an action or a response.

As an action, your explosion is a result of a decision or something out of the control of those in the story. A bomb could explode – or a person, depending on your genre – or a pipe could burst. Someone could be looking for a fight, and so begin shouting.

As a response, your explosion is a consequence of an action. A gas leak combined with a lit match, a man grieving for his late mother, or any number of things that can cause a literal or emotional explosion in the aftermath. (Including, of course, a literal explosion resulting in an emotional one.)

Some questions for your consideration:

  • Is the explosion natural or man-made?
  • If it is natural, is it a result of weather, or was it like a volcano, waiting to blow?
  • If it is man-made, who is responsible?
  • If it is emotional, who is reacting to what?
  • How much of a build up to the explosion was there, either within your story or before it begins?

We’ll continue our exploration of explosions in your writing in the next post, as we get down and dirty with that most difficult of topics: politics.

Have you got your deck of Pocket Prompts yet? Order a set today!

Pocket Prompt Expansion: Something Explodes #3 – Dire Consequences

Something Explodes - Literal or Emotional

In my last post, I explores the concept of an emotional explosion, to pair up with the idea of a literal explosion. Today, we’re going to look at a different way of using the ‘Something explodes’ card: it’s time to look at dire consequences.

One question comes to mind every time the news channel plays a story about an explosion in a major city: Does someone die?

Pocket Prompts being what they are – non-specific but useful tools for creative writing – I’ve looked at this point in a number of ways. We have a few paths to take with this expansion, which takes into account literal deaths and metaphorical deaths through the use of hyperbole.

  • If the explosion is literal, does someone die?
  • How do they die? In the explosion, or by being trapped in the rubble?
  • How many people die?
  • If it is an emotional explosion, is the death still literal?
  • Who dies? How?
  • If it is an emotional explosion, is the death hyperbolic? (e.g. dying of embarrassment)

With every question and every additional prompt on the back of a Pocket Prompt card, ask yourself these two questions:

  • How does this affect my protagonist(s)?
  • How does this move the plot forward?

By having an answer to both questions, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about where your story is going, and how to move forward from this point.

Have you got your deck of Pocket Prompts yet? Order a set today!

Pocket Prompt Expansion: Something Explodes #1 – Literal Explosions

One of the first cards I decided upon for the first deck of Pocket Prompts was ‘Something explodes’. It’s bold, dramatic, and can stir a story.

In this series of posts, I’m going to show you how this one card can be used to tell many different types of stories, and affect much more change than you might imagine.

Creative thinking is all about asking the right questions. We’ll address many more of the specifics for an explosion as the month progresses, but for now: will you take the prompt literally, or metaphorically?

If it’s a literal explosion, you then have a number of other questions to deal with:

  • Is there fire?
  • Is it an underwater explosion?
  • Is the explosion a result of a bomb or just a change in pressure?
  • Could it be natural?
  • What sort of consequences are there to a literal explosion?

Some genres don’t loan themselves well to literal explosions, and that’s okay. There’s plenty more to come with just this card.

Have you got your deck of Pocket Prompts yet? Order a set today!