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!

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.

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.