No, really, WHAT??
That is the question I've been trying to answer for myself over the last week or so. For a long time, I always said I couldn't write short stories and I didn't like reading them either. But in my early twenties, I kept up a writing blog for awhile where I wrote "episodes" about my recurring Arestin characters that were fairly self-contained. I didn't realize it at the time, but they were like short stories with training wheels. They didn't really quite stand alone, but they were getting close.
Over the last year or so, inspired by some of the brilliant stories over at the Merry Sisters of Fate blog, I've started thinking that I'd like to write short stories, and reading 'em ain't half bad either.
Coincidentally, I had just created this blog to post short stories to when I was asked to contribute to a short story anthology. Okay, so this story is going to be in a real book that might lead people to my other work. I want it to be good! I picked up a few short story anthologies to analyze what makes a short story work and not work for me.
With a short story, you don't have a whole lot of time to establish character. You have to get in and get out. Since character is the most compelling part of many novels, this can be a problem. One way around this is to write a story set in a pre-established world. Still, you want it to be interesting to people who are completely unfamiliar with the world.
My favorite short stories to read seem to fall under three times (IN MOST CASES): Funny, Uncanny, or Puzzle.
Funny: Self-explanatory. Funny stories can be entertaining at any length, because it's the humor catching the reader. Just make sure you really are funny before you attempt this. Sometimes people try too hard.
Uncanny: "Strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way" says my quickie computer dictionary's definition of the uncanny. I think many of the best Merry Fates stories fall in this camp. These stories are immediately intriguing because they explore something that we are automatically fascinated by.
Puzzle: These are often mystery stories. The plot sets up and settles an interesting situation. Asimov was good at these. Like any good mystery, this can't just be a basic "who murdered this person with poison? oh, it was the maid!" It needs to be clever. However, it also doesn't HAVE to be a mystery. It could just be an unusual dilemma in the character's life.
In most cases, I'm going for the uncanny myself, but I've read short stories that have done all three well. (Some might even do all three well at once!) Now, what does NOT work for me as a reader? Every short story collection has a few duds. Usually the writing is good but they just don't work. I've noticed that for this, we can go back to a common novel writer's question. What makes a good first sentence? A good first page? A short story really needs these because the pages are so limited.
You often see writers trying to excite people with first lines full of action and tension but no actual INTRIGUE. Similarly, a lot of short stories present a very basic situation similarly full of action and tension without intrigue. Character needs to sneak a captive out of a house, character resolves things with an ex-boyfriend, character finally masters healing magic. These scenes might work fine in a novel, but I think they tend to be sort of boring in a short story unless the characters involved are extremely compelling in a low word count. I'm a big fan of the striking moment in a short story. The Merry Sisters of Fate are good at this. They pretty much never post a story that doesn't have a striking and unusual line in it somewhere, if not many places.
Also, for goodness sake, don't put too many characters in the story. I can't keep track of seven different named characters in a twenty-page story.
I think that is all for now. More as insights develop. ;) What do you think makes for good short fiction? And what doesn't?