The Struggle of Writing Short Stories

I know I said I’d write more discussion posts, but I haven’t thought of any great bookish topics, so I’m writing one about writing instead. Hope you enjoy it anyway (I bet some of you can relate to it)!

I love the idea of writing short stories. Condensing storytelling into a few thousand words, getting the creative juices going for a few hours and actually finishing something—it strikes me as the epitome of writing. Like, if I can successfully write a short story, I will have transitioned into a new phase of being a writer, I will have “leveled up” in some cosmic way.

I don’t know, that’s just me.

The problem is, short stories are hard. (That’s probably not surprising to most of you, but it always seems to surprise me when I sit down to write one and nothing magically comes together.) I seem to face three specific roadblocks:

1. What the heck should I write?

Probably the most obvious problem. There have been countless times when I sit down to write a short story and…nothing comes. I’ll even start with inspiration—anything from my countless Pinterest boards or the random writing challenges floating around—but no plot comes out of it. I have an easy time coming up with characters and worlds and funny one-liners, but stringing all of those elements together with the elusive device of PLOT???

Nope. That doesn’t happen often.

2. Well, that’s just an exposition with a dash of plot for flavor

So here’s what happens: I start with a picture or a prompt or whatever that sets off a lightbulb in my mind and the words start pouring out. After a little while, I have a few pages written and I’m feeling pretty darn proud of myself.

Until I go back and reread it, when I realize that everything I wrote is a great set-up for a larger story (read: novel), but it isn’t close to being a short story. Sometimes, I’m fine with this (my current WIP started off as a random idea for a short story), but now that I’m fully committed to my WIP and I just want to write short stories to blow off steam, this gets annoying.

Being a pantser definitely doesn’t help this situation. I figure out the story I want to write by randomly exploring characters and scenes. That works well (if slowly) for longer projects, but not for short stories. I can’t tell you how many Word documents I have saved on my computer that are three pages of abandoned exposition.

3. And that’s just a lot of dialogue…

Sometimes I over-correct and ignore exposition completely. The stories that result from this are 80% dialogue, with the sparsest descriptions added to give the story context.

I actually love these stories, though they feel like scenes instead of stories (less plot, more snapshot). And though I love writing snappy dialogue back-and-forths, I can never shake the feeling that these stories are missing the backbone that is, you know, scenery and all that.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, there’s the hope that some of you have struggled with these same problems and have useful hints to help get over it. There’s also the hope that some of you have been trying to write short stories and not knowing why they aren’t working, and you’ll read this post and go “ah-HAH, that’s my problem!”

Also, I’m curious: what types of short stories do you like to read? Are these actually problems, or am I just imagining them?

But really, I’m sharing this with you because writing it down helps me focus on what I’ll do better next time. and putting it online forces me to do better next time. I really want to write short stories, mainly because it means that I can share more of my writing with you guys, and part of that process is sharing why I haven’t been sharing short stories with you guys as much as I would like.

So…what are you thoughts? Relatable? A mountain out of a molehill? Do you have any tricks for conquering the monster that is short stories?

10 thoughts on “The Struggle of Writing Short Stories

  1. I feel like a novelist trying to write short stories and a short story writer trying to write novels (or, really, a writer of any length trying to write a different length, including poetry) face sort of complementary challenges. Leveling up is essentially gaining an additional tool in your toolbelt, I think.

    I really struggle with short stories, too, personally. I have a hard enough time with plot in long fiction that plot in short fiction scares me enough that I honestly haven’t tried in years. I feel like most of my ideas require so much more space/time (though I recently had a flimsy one that could make a fun short).

    For me, personally, it helps to think of plot and character as inseparable things. You have characters–so what brings them into conflict with one another? What do they disagree about, what would they fight over, what would they risk their lives for? In a short story, I feel like it’s more simplification and cutting fat, but the general idea/structure is the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like reading flash fiction that is …expositioney, or scenes. You know that there is more to that world, but it is just a glimpse. It’s like a photograph. It’s not a full on movie. But it’s a single snapshot. And that doesn’t have to be a full on tell me everything about why the sky is blue. It can just be beautiful.

    Longer shorts like Short stories all the way up to novellas feel easy for me because they are one plot. Novels require multiple intermingling plots, shorts are just the essence of one single plot. (The weaving is where I have a really hard time.)

    I also use fewer characters, for everything, but especially for flash fiction. I read flash with lots of characters and I feel confused and lost but with 1 character or 2 it feels like they get room to breathe, even in 1000 words.
    Good lucking getting more out there! Great question.


    • The photograph metaphor is gorgeous 🙂 Thank you
      I have the opposite problem: I actually love weaving plot lines together. Trying to decide on one central plot line (even for a longer WIP, I’ll admit) is really hard for me.
      I definitely agree that short stories need to have a small number of characters. Trying to fit more than two or three characters into such a small space seems crazy to write, let alone to read.
      Thanks for commenting! I’m glad that this post was able to start discussions like this 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, Jocelyn! It sounds to me like your main issue is with plotting rather than with length. I used to struggle with this, too. An important first step is to take a book or a short story that you really like and then write an outline of its plot points. After that, take those same plot points and write your own version of that story. By doing that, you’ll begin to see how that author built the plot and executed it. For more research on plotting, check out this website and read Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey” when you get the chance.

    Short stories are definitely different animals than novels. Short stories need much more attention when trying to fit limited words into a typical beginning-middle-ending structure, but some writers find it much easier to approach a 5k – 10k word story than a 80k one. Regardless of whichever you prefer, I think you’ll find once you become comfortable outlining plots, both forms will come much easier to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the advice! It’s really helpful 🙂 I’ve thought about plotting out my favorite books but I’ve never dedicated myself to it. I’ll try to do it soon, though. I definitely see the usefulness (and you’re totally right, plot is more my problem than length).
      I’ll check “The Writer’s Journey” out–seems like a useful read. Thanks!


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