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Friday, August 17, 2012

The Long and the Short of It: Guest Hijacker Angeline Trevena

       This hijacking comes from Angeline Trevena.   I'll just turn things over to her and let her tell her own story.

The Long and the Short of It
Angeline Trevena

I’ve always been a novelist. I never really understood how you could manage to develop character and plot in just a few thousand words. I needed pages and pages and pages. But then I started seriously having a go at writing short stories, and found how much enjoyment I had being truly ruthless with my editing. When you find you have to cut 800 words from a 5,000 word story, that’s a significant chunk – there’s killing your darlings, and then there’s butchering them.

Through my exploration of the short story form I have been amazed at just how different a discipline it is. A writing friend of mine asked me recently if writing short stories was just a matter of ‘making the middle a lot shorter’. The simple answer is no.

Drop your complicated subplots. In a novel you have the time to reveal back stories and deep rooted motivations for all your characters and their actions, but in a short story you may only have a chance to touch on them. It’s better to keep things simple with a single, compelling plotline supported by a small cast of strong characters. Drop in hints, but let your reader fill in the rest for themselves. Remember, you can say a hell of a lot with a simple smile or raised eyebrow.

Always opt for plot and character development over description. If it doesn’t matter what colour your character’s hair is, leave it out. If it is important, reveal it in an action, or through dialogue. It’s the development of your character that is vital. Readers want to see them make a journey, see them change. Your reader still wants to come away satisfied.

Make your dialogue and setting work twice as hard. A character can reveal dislike for another by refusing to call them by their preferred nickname, or the placement of a photograph can reveal how painful or happy the memory it represents is. Look for how much you can reveal in small, simple ways.

Only describe what you need to. Let your reader imagine what the street looks like, or how big the lake is. You can point their attention in the direction of what’s important, but leave the colouring in to them. If it doesn’t advance the plot or reveal character, it doesn’t need to be described.

Dialogue is probably your greatest tool. Not only is it the most effective way to explore plot and character, it can also be used to control the pace of your story. And be ruthless cutting those speech tags. If you keep your cast small it’s easier for you to do without them, they only serve to slow things down. But make sure your readers aren’t left confused about who’s speaking.

Always read your story out loud. Whether you read it to a friend, your cat or just your bathroom mirror, reading aloud forces you to slow down, allowing you to pick up on things you would have missed reading in your head. You will hear issues like repetition, awkward rhythm, and clumsy syntax (word order). You’ll be more likely to pick up on your spelling and grammar mistakes. If you have someone to beta read for you as well, all the better.

And when you’re trying desperately to get back down under that word count, remember, even if you just cut one word from each sentence you’ll be making a big difference. Your short story should end up slick and compact, while still giving your reader the satisfaction they want.

 About Angeline:

Angeline is a published fiction writer, poet and journalist living in Devon, England. She lives above a milkshake shop with her husband and her cat who both serve as sounding boards for all her story ideas. She has been writing since she was old enough to hold a pen and really isn’t sure what she’d do with her hands if she didn’t.

You can follow her on her blog at or check out her work on her website

         Do you write short stories?   What suggestions might you have that are not included here?   What do you struggle most with when trying to keep the story short?

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  1. Angeline, firstly thank you for such a thought provoking, interesting article, it really means a lot that you took the time out for all of us to write on Lees blog. I'm not personally a short story writer but I see it being okay to branch out from it being short if you discover that the premise is particularly interesting or worthy of expanding on. It was really interesting to read all of your opinions on this all the same though.

  2. Great post. I've found my groove with novel length and flash fiction, but I still struggle with short stories. I'll get there, but it will just take a little extra effort.

  3. Thank you to Lee for letting me hijack here today. I love novel writing and short story writing equally and I'm really enjoying practising the different skills involved.

    @YeamieWaffles - My short stories often bring up ideas that, one day, will become a full-length novel. I also take novel ideas and test them out as short stories first.

    @Ciara - Just keep practicing and you'll get there in no time.

  4. Haven't tried any short stories, although my novels tend to be really short...

  5. Reading out loud is important no matter what kind of writing you do. It's better with an audience, but it's something every writer whould practice, audience or no.

  6. Absolutely agree Andrew. It just lets you pick up on things you can totally miss if you just read in your head.

  7. Most of the tips you outlined are things I already practice with my regular writing. I guess that's why all my stories tend to be novella-length. I was never fond of reading page-long descriptions or pointless subplots. Such things just make an otherwise tight story seem padded out for the sake of length.

  8. Excellent post. I'm just getting into trying my hand at short stories and this is great advice. Thanks.

  9. i think i write looong short stories--great article :)

  10. I adore short stories it's a real art conveying a message, action and everything else in a short space.

  11. I'm glad you all enjoyed the post and found something useful from it.

    I may have come to short stories later in life, but I have discovered a real love, and admiration, for them and the skills involved.

  12. Everything you said makes perfect sense. And, for the reader, there's pleasure in picking up on the subtleties rather than having everything explained.

  13. Nice to meet you, Angeline,

    Good pointers. I started short stories, went novels and write shorts now and then. Writing and editing short stories are great reminders of how often I use more words than necessary.

  14. @Missed Periods - I think a lot of writers start out by just putting everything in their head on the page; it's a delicate balance between too much and too little information, and it's something we only learn by practice.

    @ JL Campbell - Nice to meet you too! I love that final read through of a short story where it's so compact and not a single word is wasted.

  15. I began writing short stories before expanding to novels.

  16. Interesting tips, Angeline. Thank you. One thing I learned is that after having to cut a short story to make it lean enough for publication in a magazine, making cuts in a novel became easier.

    Not sure if I envy you or pity you for living above a milkshake shop. That could be verrrry dangerous...

  17. Yes to leaving something to the imagination of the reader. In fact, I love that when it's skillfully done. Some writers just seem to know what to touch on and what to describe fully and what to let ride.

    Great post. Thanks for it.

  18. @Susan - yes, that's true; since getting into writing short stories my skills at editing my novels have definitely improved. And it is dangerous living over a milkshake shop - it makes milkshakes just far too convenient!

    @cleemckenzie - true, some writers just strike that balance perfectly. Another skill perfected only through practice and honest feedback. Glad you liked the post.

  19. Angeline-- I'm so pleased that you were able to grab a spot during my guest hosting series. Thanks for being a part of this.

    And thanks to all who visited Angeline while she was sitting in for me.


  20. This was a great post, Angeline! Thank you! I've tried my hand at short stories and it is infinitely tougher than a full length novel. But I enjoy the challenge.

    Thanks again for a great post!

  21. I took a short story class and kind of got addicted to writing short stories - especially how I could take an idea and have a completed work in just a few days. The only problem is that I think I may write a little too sparsely now. :)


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