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.

Quick planning a novel

In this NaNoWriMo Prep series, we’ve so far looked at why to do NaNo (aside from it being great) and how to turn a prompt into a plot. In today’s post, we’ll focus on planning your book to give you a guideline for writing.

Getting started with your plan

Your plan needs two things: the idea for the plot, and the characters. If you haven’t already taken note of them, write them down now. It’s good to keep track of your plan in writing, rather than assuming you’ll remember everything in the moment. Let’s get started with writing this down.

Who is your protagonist?

Put down their name, their age, their job. Everything you noted from yesterday’s post – make a list of it. Some of it will be useful for the book, some of it won’t, but it helps that you know your character(s). You can make this sort of list for your primary and secondary characters. Keep in mind that if you’re stuck for time, you should focus on the characters who matter most first.

What does your protagonist want?

This is their why. This will inform the plot in one of the following ways:

  • The story will focus on how they try to achieve their goal
  • The story will be about how they avoid chasing their dreams – some people are great at making excuses for themselves
  • The story will focus on the reasons why they can’t chase their goal

The last point is where we get our next point for your plan:

What is the conflict of the novel?

In my notes, I wrote “What gets in their way?”, because typically that’s what we’re talking about. What stops your protagonist from achieving their goal? What obstacles do they need to overcome?

When you know this, it’s a lot easier to figure out the plot of the novel. This is especially important when you need a plan.

Are there any genre tropes you should include?

Tropes exist for a reason – readers and viewers recognise them. Identifying the tropes of your genre is helpful. Littering your book with them isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it can help you figure out how your book is forming, and what genre it is. Your genre says a lot about the sort of story you’re telling, and can inform a lot about how it’s told.

Figure out genre tropes from reading in your genre and checking out TV Tropes. The former requires a lot more time, while the latter requires some restraint on your part – it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of TV Tropes.

Three basic things to note

Everyone knows the classroom guide to writing a story. You need to know three things:

  • The beginning – how will you start?
  • The end – how will you wrap up the book?
  • The middle – what do you need to include to get from A-Z?

The middle is where we include things such as:

  • Conflict between characters
  • Sub plots
  • Plot twists
  • The discovery of your character’s primary goal, if you haven’t already included it in the beginning of the book

Note events in a random order at first if you need to, and then rearrange for a suitable flow. The story should be resolved by the end of the book – even if you’re writing a series. Every book in a series should still read as a full story by itself.

How do you plan?

There are a lot of different methods. I note everything that happens in a book, chapter by chapter. This is after I’ve thought it through, sometimes through mind maps. I like to add notes to myself in my plan about things I’ll forget as I’m writing, like the setting of a scene when I know I can get lost in physical conflict between characters. Other times, I’ll highlight a key detail that needs to be included.

My preference is to print my plan and keep it beside me while I work. This has the added benefit of allowing me to take notes on it as I go, especially if I introduce a character I hadn’t planned on before. While I prepare extensively, I still let myself have fun while I write by tending to the plot as it develops by itself.

Come back tomorrow

As the series progresses, we’ll take a look at some tools for managing your time, and tackle the subject of short stories – Camp NaNoWriMo is about freedom, and if you think a novel might be too much work, short fiction might be your best bet!

Why Should You Take Part in NaNoWriMo?

As I write this, Ireland is shy of a lockdown and people are generally practicing social distancing. The first couple of weeks were stressful, but as this continues, people will eventually replace stress with boredom. That’s where NaNoWriMo comes in, and with April right around the corner, Camp NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity to create something for yourself. In the first of a series on the NaNo experience, we’re going to look at the benefits of taking part in NaNoWriMo, whether there’s a quarantine in place or not!

The Pros of NaNoWriMo

For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is a month-long writing challenge. Every November, writers all over the world attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel. With Camp, every April and July, writers can set their own challenges within the same creative space as the regular challenge. Whether you’re partaking in Camp or doing it in November, the benefits are the same.

A dedicated platform for tracking your progress

Sometimes, it’s difficult to keep track of how much you’ve written without posting about it on social media. Even then, you’re open to questions, and prone to distractions. The NaNoWriMo website is the perfect place to regularly update your project’s word count, and to see your progress displayed in a graph. As a motivational tool, there’s nothing quite like it.

Community support when you need it

NaNoWriMo is built on communities working remotely. While the Dublin NaNo region normally tends towards twice-weekly meetups in November, Camp is much more relaxed. We maintain conversations on the NaNoWriMo forum, as well as Facebook and Discord, as a general rule of thumb during NaNo, and we’re but one place local writers can turn to for advice and support. The dedicated NaNo forum is filled with writers from all over the world, offering their two cents on every topic related to writing, neatly organised by category.

Regional communities for those who need to know locals

Every region is different. Some are great at meet-ups, others are great at the online stuff. The Dublin region typically prefers in-person meetings, because even the most introverted Irish person likes a good chinwag and a cuppa with other people every now and then. The regional communities are a great way to make new friends; I met my fellow MLs in the Dublin region during NaNo and we talk every day online – and meet up at every available opportunity.

Goals to help with motivation

Setting a goal is the first step towards doing something. It’s why so many people get lost when working or studying alone – they don’t know what they need to achieve. November NaNo is clear: 50,000 words in 30 days. Camp lets you set your own goals, whether you want to aim higher or lower, write or edit, work on a novel or a comic or a collection of short stories. The site will then track your progress on the project based on the timeline you’re working with.

Somewhere to put your energy or to distract yourself

When I was younger, writing was a great distraction. It gave me something to focus on that wasn’t school. Now, it’s one of my favourite things to do, and leaves me with a sense of accomplishment like nothing else. During the COVID-19 social distancing, writing a novel – or practicing any sort of creativity – is the perfect way to channel some energy. Restlessness isn’t good for the head. Taking part in a community challenge like this is a great way to relieve some of the stress of the current environment, and gives you something to share with friends and family at the end.

What are you waiting for?

If you’re not already signed up for NaNoWriMo, head to their website and register. When you’ve announced your novel, let me know wherever you found this blog post, or in the comments below! I’m rooting for you – from a safe distance.

Cover Reveal: Tales of the Fantastical

Announcing my next book – TALES OF THE FANTASTICAL – a collection of short stories from 2017 to date.

Containing dozens of stories, TALES OF THE FANTASTICAL is one writer’s equivalent of an artbook, showcasing new and old work within the un-boundaries of speculative fiction. As well as an exploration into THE BLACK PAGES, the book contains a plethora of the fantastical, stories to raise eyebrows and twist logic.

TALES OF THE FANTASTICAL draws inspiration from plays on words and taking a sideways look at the world around us.

The book will officially launch at Dublin Comic Con on March 14th.

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!