I can't do it. I can't tell a story in 4,000 words.
I'm trying to write five sep. short stories for the '08 Writer's Digest contest and I am close to solving my issues by chuncking my P.C. across the room...
How do you tell a complete story with only 4,000 words? I went back and averaged out my chapter lengths. From 5 chapters, I have an average of 5,200 words.
The idea has become overwhelming to me, now. Its been about 7 years since I've written a short story, and I don't even know how to start. Please, help. How do you go about telling a story with such a ilmited vocab budget?
I don't know, if the answer is "Keep It Simple, Stupid" I may have to bow out of this one. Have I mentioned I've got the worst case of over-explaination?
I recommend you write the story how it flows from you. More than likely you, like the rest of us, write flowery, wordy prose that can be easily chopped in revision.
My first story ever (WotF 2008 3Q) was 9500 words. I recently gave it another look after just a few short months of learning and I chopped nearly 3000 words out of it. Now, that's excessive and I was very liberal in my cutting, but usually you can chop a great deal out of a first draft.
Stephen King has a rule that every revision should result in a 10% reduction in prose. That's a minimum.
It helps if you read a lot of short stories, as some obvious tricks and techniques start to show through. For instance, the cast of characters in a short story is typically very small. You don't want to have to reintroduce characters in a 4000 word story over and over. "Remember bob, sarah's third cousin - married to matilda, he's the one who's an insurance salesman?"
Another common feature is that a short story often just has one major plot line, with one minor plot or theme or sub-plot (this is often where short story writers will bury double-meanings and deeper meanings. Cool stuff, but tricky to do and maintain over the length of a novel, IMHO.)
Another is that short stories are often set in a limited venue. They may take place in more than one location, but the locations are often tied (e.g., all in one city, or several rooms in a house.)
There are some fantastic webzines that publish short stories on the web. I'm a staff reader for Flash Fiction Online, which is a super-short form, 500-1000 words. It's a hard goal to achieve, a full story in 1k words or less, but the good ones are excellent and can teach a lot about brevity, being careful with word choice. My favorite story from FFO is called "Apologies All Around" - though I think you would like "James Brown is Alive and Doing Laundry in South Lake Tahoe" - January and February 2008 issues.
And, it bears mentioning, short stories aren't for everyone. Some people find their writing style and complex plotting and extensive character rolls fit better in novel-length works. But it's certainly a good exercise to try something different with your writing, if you always write novels. Good luck!
A low wordcount for science fiction and fantasy is almost impossible because of the worldbuilding involved. If the speculative element is slight, then the less exposition is needed, the lower the wordcount.
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I've come to realize there's almost a formula for the length of each story, and writing a story of specified length means figuring that formula out.
Almost an a+bxc=#of words.
The factors that you manipulate to do it are: --number of speaking acting characters. As always you can have unlimited background characters, like a church congregation or an unnamed barmaid who brings your MC a drink. To help shorten stories, reduce the number of speaking acting characters and eliminate secondary and tertiary characters--ie. any characters who contribute in more than a background way (ie. you give them a name or describe them), but that don't contribute enough to be one of your few central characters. Either relegate them to background status (unnamed, undescribed, unimportant) or have one of the more important characters fill their role. --number of scenes. In other words, tell the story in as short a chronological time frame as possible and eliminate unnecessary scenes that perhaps could be referred to instead. The first place to look for unnecessary scenes is those in which the main character is doing, essentially, nothing but pondering his circumstances or worrying about something. If the character isn't DOING anything in the scene, actually ACTING, then try to summarize and eliminate that scene. Shortening your chronological time frame takes into account the next place to simplify... --number of conflicts. Every conflict in a story requires resolution. The fewer conflicts or problems that need solving, the shorter your story can be. Sometimes, too, a single conflict can require a complex resolution that might take too much space to write. Identify and consider your conflicts/problems carefully. Choose one that can be resolved without too much difficulty and discard the rest.
The formula works for all lengths of story, from flash to novel. A novel with too few of the above will be tedious to both read and write, because it will be full uninteresting drivel intended purely to take up space. A flash story with too many of them is, simply, impossible.
There are some very useful and practical suggestions so far. Among the best, in my opinion, is to just write the story, then cut what isn't necessary, and to stick to only a couple of main characters at most. I think if you're really honest with yourself, and capable of "killing your darlings", then you will find a way to make whatever it is a workable story in the number of words you are targeting.
Another thing to do that hasn't been mentioned so far, is to find someone you trust and respect to read your work and make suggestions on what to cut. Often outside sources will point to entire scenes and say, "Well, that didn't need to be there for the story to work."
Along those same lines, it is easier to cut stories if you write in scenes, then look at each scene individually, figuring out the bare minimum of information needed to carry the story along. often scenes are full of a lot of unnecessary things, but things that add to a story and are difficult to cut. The parts that are really good become "your darlings"--things that an author becomes attached to so much, they find themselves wanting to keep, but that need to go. Basically, no matter how good, if it doesn't move the plot along, it doesn't need to be in the story.
For example, a scene may start out with a character getting off a train, walking into an office building, ducking a co-worker or two, and finally reaching the office of the person that is really critical to the story. While this kind of thing really fleshes out character through action, and is very useful in novels for setting things up, it is often fluff for a short story.
Instead, in this case, the scene could be cut to start when the main character opens the door to the office, slamming it behind them, and with the office occupant saying something like, "Trying to hide from Hicks again?". By doing so it tells the reader the character is doing something they shouldn't, and the office occupant is someone familiar and friendly. Going beyond that for a short is really unnecessary.
So I don't think simple is really the right term, but perhaps concise would fit better to write shorter, but still full stories.
I also think one shouldn't underestimate the power of micro editing, that is, finding ways to say in one word what it would otherwise take 2 or more words to say. I've managed to cut out nearly 200 words on a 1,000-word story this way.
For me, and I'm far from being good at this--novels are my natural medium--the key is focus, focus, focus. The tighter your focus, on one character, one theme, one event, what have you, the easier it is to write a short, tight story.
I don't read short stories, I don't even read many stand-alone full-length novels, anymore. These days, I'm looking for commitment. I want my books to last forever, so I read series. (serieses?). Like Ender/Bean, Wheel of Time, Sword of Truth, Discworld...
I'm off to Wiki so I can sound smart when y'all are talking about Flash Fiction in the future.
I really want to do these contests. Personal Goal-Bucket List thing. So, I'm going to look into all of these suggestions. I'm thinking combining a couple -write how I write, then go back and edit using some of the tips like word economy and read short stories while on on this journey for structure examples - and I'm fairly certian I have a chance at honorable mention. (Hey, I'd be honored if my name got brought up in Writer's Digest when they were talking about the stories that sucked the hardest! no such thing as bad pub) (and, now, as I enter into my third set of parenthesis, you see why I'm having trouble with 4000 words!)
Flash Fiction is a story in a thousand words. Yep, 1000.
As others have said, that's a tough assignment, which can be met in part with few characters, one simple plot, and a milieu that can be sketched in few words.
I find that the requirement to get it down to 1000 words sharpens one's editing skills. You find ways of saying in few words what previously took a paragraph. You learn to prioritise which aspects of the story get the words, and to eliminate subplots, lesser characters, descriptions and so on that, while perhaps interesting in a longer form, are spurious to the essence of the story.
The 1000 words is a really tough limit, and some of us find it too much so--yet, still worth doing because of how it develops writing discipline. Personally, I conceptualize a "small" story, write it without thinking about the limit, then edit it down to 1000 words. Once it's been offered to the flash fiction contest and critiqued, it usually expands in later revisions beyond the 1000 words to some natural size. Then, the contribution of the flash fiction phase was to get the story tight, to understand and focus upon its essence.
1000 words is teh commonest current use of flash, but there are some adherents who think it should be 500 or fewer, while others allow a little more leeway (Abyss and Apex have amended their "flash fiction" section to include stories up to 1500 words, for example).
I shall gratuitously plug Every Day Fiction again, and not in any way because today it features on of my stories. Oh no. Why, that must be pure coincidence
I seem to have lost the ability to write short, at least where fiction is concerned. Before two years ago, most things never got much above ten thousand words, and most were shorter...since then, even the unfinished stuff runs up to twenty thousand and beyond.
And it seems odd, too---one of my finished works ran about twenty-five thousand words, despite having only two major and four minor characters. Cutting got it down to twenty thousand, which still seems a bit much. (Rejected when I submitted, but that was only to two places. Anybody who wants a look can find it on my website, provided anybody is interested. It's the long one.)
Some of us here work on a monthly Flash Fiction ezine, called Flash Fiction Online, which is an attempt at not only identifying Flash Fiction, but promoting good Flash Fiction. Check it out; it's free.
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I saw a few hits from a Hatrack thread I didn't recognize and had to head over. Sorry I don't drop by more often.
For you trivia buffs, "Flash Fiction" was coined in 1991 when a book was written about it. They say that it originally meant no more text than would cover one well-designed spread in a book -- about 750 words. (The book is on the literary side of things, though -- I'm actually not a big fan of most of the stories in it.) 1000 words is more common from what I've seen, though, and it's the definition we use at Flash Fiction Online.
KayTi and IB might have mentioned (ahem) that there's also a regular feature by Bruce Holland Rogers (award-winning, world-renowned author and teacher, etc. etc. etc.) on Flash Fiction Online in which Bruce talks specifically about how to write very short fiction. He includes complete stories (and I'm not kidding, they're complete: plot, character, setting) with extremely short word counts. "The House of Women" is under 400 words, "Daddy is 238 words, "The Bullfrog and his Shadows" is 505 words. You can find a complete list of Bruce's columns on his author page.
There are a lot of people who write stories that are 100 words long ("drabbles") or 69 words long ("69ers") or even 6 words long. I often find that these "stories" aren't really stories, in my opinion. Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." is an image, not a story. But the stories above are honest-to-goodness stories, by anyone's definition.
Reading flash helps you understand what you're giving up when you get to the really short forms -- and what you're gaining. And understanding flash may help you understand how to get below 4000 words, too.
[This message has been edited by oliverhouse (edited September 04, 2008).]