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Short Story Advice from the Masters of the Craft

Writing a short story is one of the most difficult and complex endeavors a writer can undertake. The process of ensuring change within characters over the span of only a few pages is more difficult than it seems to the untrained eye, and telling a story within such limited space takes much patience to get it right.

So what do the masters of short-story writing have to say about the genre and the process? Take a look at the quotes below and consider the suggestions for your own approaches to the genre.

A short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.

Lorrie Moore

Thinking of a short story in much the same way as a journalistic photographer thinks of a photograph will put you on the right track in the creation process. When setting up a shot, a photographer will make every attempt to include details that give depth to the subject of the photograph. A photograph of a young girl standing alone with a flower might not have much depth, but widen the frame to a photograph of that same girl holding a flower in front of the gravesite of her father and suddenly the entire picture takes on a much deeper meaning. Widen the frame even more, and the viewer only sees a graveyard with a figure standing alone.

If the photographer focuses the frame too narrowly, the meaning is absent because of the lack of visual information; if the writer focuses too broadly, the meaning is lost in a sea of other distracting visual elements. In the same sense, when writing a short story, you have to include visual, sensory elements of setting that give greater depth to your characters. Add too many, however, and the theme is lost. In such, finding the perfect "frame" for the attempt is your greatest challenge.

A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.

Edgar Allan Poe

Poe is undoubtedly one of the most prolific and influential authors of the genre. He is often referenced when discussing the importance of building tension and creating a mood within a piece. In this quote, he cautions against writing about anything that isn't a necessary progression toward the story's denouement. Simply put, if the main character has a cousin in England but that cousin has nothing to do with the story, don't mention him.

For the same reason you should know the end before you even start writing, you should also know the target mood you want to accomplish before beginning the first sentence. In the same way that every plot point in your short story must be moving toward the conclusion, every sentence you write should attempt to convey the targeted mood. When you use this formula and ensure its application, the likelihood of getting off track or having too broad a scope will be decreased significantly.

With a novel, which takes perhaps years to write, the author is not the same man he was at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. It is not only that his characters have developed—he has developed with them, and this nearly always gives a sense of roughness to the work: a novel can seldom have the sense of perfection which you find in Chekhov's story, 'The Lady with the Dog.'

Graham Greene

When writing a short story, you should aim for perfection in every word. If a novelist does this, her book would likely never be ready for publication—it would simply take too long to finish. This is where the uniqueness of a short story sets it apart from any other genre (except poetry). Every word, every description, every element of setting, every movement must have purpose—and that purpose is to guide the story and its characters toward the resolution.

I believe that the short story is as different a form from the novel as poetry is, and the best stories seem to me to be perhaps closer in spirit to poetry than to novels.

Tobias Wolff

While we're on the topic of poetry, we can't leave out this wonderful quote from Tobias Wolff that demonstrates the difference between sitting down to work on a novel versus sitting down to write a short story. When a poet writes, the process is often a period of agonizing over every single word. This process involves analyzing the word, considering its connotations, and searching for any other word that might fit better to convey the exact emotion the author wishes to convey.

The process of writing a short story should be very similar to the poet's process. The author needs to agonize over word choice, setting, clothing… anything that is included in the story. The sound of the language is as important in a short story as it is in poetry. Every word should be selected carefully to convey the right mood and the right emotion, and every action must have a purpose.

I'm a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story which is the most demanding form after poetry. And failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.

William Faulkner

Often, a writer will take on a short story thinking that it will be simpler than writing a novel. As far as time commitment, this may be the case, although as William Faulkner points out, the short story is one of the most demanding forms of literature to write. It requires much of the same level of research as a novel, but must be condensed like poetry to tell only what is most relevant, most crucial and most poignant about a character's interaction with time, place and situation.

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