Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Tall tales told briefly: a short story writer’s guide

I confess: after publishing nearly two dozen short stories, I’d given up. Writing workshops were starting to tell me my tales didn’t fit into the few-thousand-word format of a short story. Flash fiction, micro fiction? Forget about it!

Ann Fields
Then at a recent meeting of the Dallas Mystery Writers, I heard short story writer Ann Fields speak on the few (but basic) principles, and thought, maybe I’ll find the courage to try the short form again. I’ll think of it as a summer wardrobe for my writing. Fewer pieces, no layering, just the basics.

Not that Fields saw the light immediately in her own writing career. She started by writing long – four romance novels and one novella published under the pen name Anna Larence. Her short fiction has been published in the anthologies Lyrical Darkness, Voices from the Block (volumes I and II): A Legacy of African-American Literature.

“I loved the long form, but I had a day job and found it hard to keep my focus. So, I took a detour through short form and fell in love with that form of writing,” she told her mystery-writing audience.

Writers often ask how many words it takes to make a novel. How few does it take to make a short story? Like your summer wardrobe, there’s brief, briefer and briefest. Remember, like the length of your skirt hem, the following word counts are suggestions. When writing for publication, check your publisher’s website for specific guidelines.

That said, Fields’ definitions for short fiction categories range from micro fiction (up to 100 words, or less than a page), flash fiction (up to 300 words, or up to a single page), short stories (up to 10,000 words, or 35 pages or less), and novellas (up to 30,000 words, or 130 pages or less).

(I’ll add a note: in my experience, many ezines and anthologies prefer “short stories” on the shorter side, often in the 3,000 to 5,000-word range.)

That said, short form fiction still needs to be fiction. It must be a complete story with a definable beginning, middle and end. It needs well-developed characters, strong story conflict, internal (character) conflict, a provocative setting and an intriguing story question. It will also contain such basic elements as dialogue, action, description, narration (exposition) and internal monologue (introspection).

Fields notes that, because of their brief length, not all short stories will contain all of the basic elements. Still, it seems like a lot to cover while still staying under 10,000 words, maybe under 100.

Her suggestion is, rather than fixating on word-counts, simply to write the story in your heart in the way that seems natural to you – and it. “How did the story come to you?” The most important factors in determining the form (and length) of any story, she said, are the author’s intent, intuition, and writing sense.

“I credit (my intuition) to reading a lot of short stories and getting familiar with the feel and the rhythm of them.” For those not sure where to start reading short stories, she suggests the annual Best American Short Stories anthologies. “I spend way too much money at Lucky Dog Books and Half Price Books for those story anthologies.”

Other resources for finding short stories include Hemingway/PEN Award winners, New American Fiction, and  Flannery O’Connor Award winners. Favorite writers include those as diverse as J. California Cooper, O. Henry, Eudora Welty, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen Crane and Joan Silber. (However, she urges caution when using older writers as guides. Poe’s classic, The Fall of the House of Usher, spends its first page and a half on a description of setting, something “he would not be able to get away with in modern times!”)

That said, short stories focus more strongly on a single character than do longer forms of fiction. More than a single character is acceptable, but the viewpoint of one individual must be paramount. They also have a single theme, a unified feel, and are tightly written. And only one plot. No subplots allowed! Think about whether your story can be read in a single sitting. And have fun. There’s room for experimentation and atypical styles in the short fiction format.


Need more motivation to write short? Consider this short story writing contest that offers cash and publication credits. The Dallas Area Writers Group’s 2017 Short Story Contest (closes August 15). See the site for details. 


  1. Melissa, THANK YOU! This is a marvelous and thorough recap of the session. But more importantly I am so happy to read you're restarting your short story writing journey. I look forward to reading your works. Please do let me know when they are published!!! Thanks again, you're amazing.

    1. Thanks, Ann. It was a pleasure to meet you. I've attended many classes on writing short stories, but none that were both to the point, and inspirational.