What Makes a Short Story?
Our fiction contests receive a lot of entries whech are the proper length, but are not really fiction. Often I will fictionalize a real event when writing a story, but when I do, I make it obvious I'm telling a story, and that the story will stand whether or not it is true. To make non-fiction into fiction, some crucial elements are required.
What makes a story? A story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Within the story, action must take place. A story requires characters. Whether the only character evident is the narrator, or whether there are many characters is irrelevant, but there has to be at least one.
A story is more than just a recounting of a list of events. The story must concern the person the events happened to. It must engage the reader's interest. It ought not to read like a newspaper article. Can your story begin with "Once upon a time?" In other words, there is a time involved here, and something happened to someone in that time.
A short story must fit its elements into a certain length. Some have asked for stories of five hundred words or less, some for one hundred words. I personally have trouble writing stories less than six or seven pages, 250 words to a page. Others live the challenge a limit gives them. We lengthened our contests from 2000 to 3000 words to give writers a chance to expand on plot and character. From one writer we received what looks like a portion of a novel. The novel and short story formats are different. Novels give the writer room to expand, to develop character. Short stories require compression, much the way poetry does, to put the same character development into far fewer words.
If I were giving advice to those writing short stories for our contests, I would say this: Give the story to a friend and ask him to read it. Get feedback. Ask the questions, "Is this a story?" "Is this an article?" "Do I have plot and character?" "Is the end satisfactory, and did I fulfill the promise of the premise?"
If your friend answers no, sit down and rework the story until his answers change.
Lori Stayer has been writing since she could write, and telling stories before that. She resides with her husband, David, on Long Island. On her closet shelves are better than two hundred novels, or perhaps seven novels, and one hundred ninety three revisions. She has been active in the National Federation of the Blind Writers' Division since its beginnings in 1982, and is the editor of Slate & Style, a magazine for blind writers. Contact Lori.