The Long and Short of It


The first short story I’ve ever written is two-thirds of the way through my novel, Secrets of the Sari Chest. That short story didn’t take me long to write because before writing it, I knew it needed to reveal certain key pieces of information about one of the main characters. Knowing how it needed to end, and what it needed to convey, made it a relatively easy short story for me to write.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on my second ever short story for my friend Soniah Kamal, who is guest editing an issue of Sugar Mule next year.

With an absolutely blank page and only a very general theme to guide my writing, I’m finding the drafting of a short story to be a difficult task– so much more difficult, in fact, than I found writing a novel.

I used to hardly ever read short stories. I remember, years ago, when I’d have time to read every issue of The New Yorker cover to cover (on the train ride to work), I always used to skip reading the short story. But one day I went to the library and watched the librarian set some of the brand new books on the shelf. One of them was Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. I was the first person to check it out, and I read the entire collection.

That was the beginning of my new love for the short story form. And though I continue to read short stories regularly, I find them incredibly difficult to approach as a writer. How does one show character development in approximately 3,000 words? Build tension? These are things I can do in a novel. But in a novel, one has the luxury of many words. In a short story, one doesn’t.

It’s coming along, but slowly. Any tips out there from short story writers?

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6 thoughts on “The Long and Short of It

  1. Definitely a tough one, Anjali. It’s been awhile since I wrote short stories (yes, I do write them) – but a few things I learned:

    Do an outline just like a novel; know where you want to end up so you can work out how to get there before you start. Short stories usually start abruptly, in the middle of an action sequence.

    Stick to no more than 4 characters max, and only “show” what is absolutely necessary to the plot: appearance, actions, speech, dialogue need to be concise – any other details should be saved for a full length novel or novella

    Stick to one theme, few settings, one major crisis and a short time period. Back story can be used briefly as clues interspersed throughout the story, but should be brief.

    If I think of anything else, I’ll come back and add to this, but that’s all I can remember right now. I hope this helps you out a little …

    Best of luck! ~ Julie :)

  2. I find both forms equally challenging. I remind myself that, in many ways, a short story is a mini novel, at the very least one emotion out of the many found in a novel. Hope this was helpful. And looking forward to reading your story:)

  3. I find it helpful to remind myself that the short story explores one emotion while the novel many:)

  4. Thanks, Julie! This is really great advice! Definitely going to take another look at the draft keeping your tips in mind!

  5. Oh, I’m so glad you were able to find something helpful in my suggestions – I haven’t been able to come up with anything else, but Soniah’s suggestion to stick to exploring only one emotion is right on as well. You want to keep your writing as tight as possible. Would love to read it when you’re finished! :)

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