When you write a story, you have to focus on a theme. What’s your story about? It can be a complex idea, but everything needs to revolve around that one theme. In a novel you can have a sub-plot (or more than one), but for a short story, we need to keep it simple, and that’s what I want to focus on here.
You’ve got an idea in your head – you want to write about aliens, love, monsters, or the mystery of who stole the cookies from the cookie jar. Maybe you want to write about monsters in love or cookie-stealing aliens. That’s fine, as long as you have your main theme. You wouldn’t put out cutesy, coloured-egg-bearing bunny decorations on Oct. 31st. So don’t include cookie-stealing monsters in your romance, unless they have a bearing on your story.
SHOW DON’T TELL
When you’re in elementary school, you have Show-and-Tell. You show everyone an object you’ve brought from home, and you tell them all about it. In a magazine like National Geographic, they kind of do the same thing – they show you a picture then include a description about it. You can’t do that with your short story or your novel. Your words have to be your pictures. So, how do you do that? It can be difficult because, while writing is easy, GOOD writing is hard. Even writers who’ve been writing for years–and writers who have books published–often struggle with this. They need to think about what words are the best ones to use so they’re not simply writing one big snorefest. Let’s start with something simple:
Mrs. Smith was hungry.
That’s telling. You, the author, are telling me something about your character.
Mrs. Smith’s stomach growled when she smelled the spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove.
This one is showing. You’re not simply telling us she’s hungry, but from the words you’ve chosen to use, we can guess that she is.
Yes, your story needs balance. That means you need three things: speech, action, and description. A story with too much speech reads like a script for a TV show. With too much description, people will be flipping pages to get to the good stuff. If there’s too much action, it won’t be believable. After all, even superheroes need to slow down and rest once in a while. You can include action and description through the use of tag lines:
“Can you take me home?” Jenny asked, turning her head to hide her tears.
But don’t do this with every sentence. If the only action in your story is constantly tagged onto a speech sentence, your readers will soon tire of your story. Sometimes you don’t even need a tag line. If you’ve established your characters, and there are only two in the scene you can simply put the speech line:
“Will you please take these newspapers to Margaret?”
“I can do that,” said Elizabeth.
If you have more than two characters, you almost always need tag lines for every line of speech. The exception would be if one of the characters were naming the others. But you don’t want it to read like a list:
“Mary, Shaun, Kaci, Shanelle, I see you’re all ready for lift off. Willie and Spike, I can see you two are not.”
This is a thinly veiled attempt to include everyone who’s not speaking, so there’s no need for a tag line (for an established character).
Captain Jones looked at her crew. “Willie and Spike, why aren’t you two ready for lift off?”
This way works much better. We get an action combined with speech. We get two names, not a laundry list and, as long as the crew has been established, we know which members are ready.
You can slip description into your tag lines – As Captain Jones looked at her crew, her green eyes narrowed. – or you can sprinkle it appropriately throughout your story. But don’t overdo it. Stephen King might have the luxury of taking two pages to describe a tree, but until you’re making his money, you can’t afford to do that.
One way to tell if you’re using too much of one thing over another is to use colour, and there are a couple of ways to do it. You can use the colour feature on your computer: highlight all the speech and pick a colour. Let’s use red. Then highlight all the description and highlight it, let’s say, green. Finally, highlight all your action in a third colour like purple. Look at your screen and see if the colours are balanced. If you’ve got too much green, you need to cut back on description. If there’s not enough red, you might want to see if you can change some of that green to red.
The other way is to print out your story and highlight with different coloured highlighters. This has the same effect. It just might be easier with actual the actual paper manuscript in your hand.
BETTER VS. DIFFERENT
In addition to balance, you need to be able to discern between better and different. Yes, I know you know the difference between the words themselves, but that’s not what I mean. You want your words to tell a story, a good story, so you need to choose them carefully.
Nana’s little dog barked at the bus.
Nana’s small dog barked at the bus.
There’s no difference in those sentences. They both mean the same thing. Whether I use “small” or “little” is simply a matter of preference. If you’re worried this might be a “telling” sentence, consider this:
Nana’s small dog barked at the bus. Her two cats leapt from window to window as the baby awoke from his nap, and the phone rang.
The “telling” sentence is working to show us the chaos currently in Nana’s house. Whether you’re writing, critiquing, or getting a critique, you need to consider if the words will improve the sentence and/or story.
I shot at the alien and blew his head off. (Okay)
I shot at the alien, leaving a gaping hole where his head used to be. (Better)
These two sentences also mean the same thing, but the reason the second one is better is because instead of telling me what happened to the alien, it shows me, gives me something to visualize. I’m sure one can visualize a head being blown off, but the second is more descriptive (and perhaps somewhat gruesome).
Critiques are a very important part of writing and you have to learn how to give them as well as receive them. You’re probably thinking that you know how to receive them, but do you? It’s not like getting a gift from Grandma. When she offers you a gift lovingly wrapped in beautiful paper and tied with a fancy bow, do you rip it from her wrinkled hands, leaving her in your dust as you tear off the bow and claw through the paper? Of course not. You know how to receive a gift. But a critique isn’t anything like that. As long as the words given are meant to help, you can’t let them hurt you, and you can’t defend your every choice, making no changes. That kind of defeats the purpose of the critique.
First of all, the critique is meant as help. No one should be flaming, insulting, or ripping your story to shreds. Nor should you do this to anyone else’s story. Every critique needs to include something good about the story. A good critique also offers something useful. Saying, “Great story. I loved it.” isn’t a good critique. It’s not even a critique. It’s a comment, an opinion. Likewise, don’t say, “This story stinks,” unless you have advice on how to help. Even then, don’t say the story stinks. Say instead, “This story has potential”, or “This didn’t work for me because…”, then give your reason. Just saying a story is great or terrible doesn’t help the author fix the problems in the story.
And as an author, you need to be able to accept constructive criticism. You also have to understand that not everyone will love your story. If you write horror, a romance author might think your story is horrible. If you write fantasy, the author of contemporary young adult fiction may not get it. So you need to develop a thick skin. This will also come in handy when (not if) your story gets declined. Sorry, but this is a fact of life. Very few stories get accepted by the first editor you submit to. This isn’t to say it never happens; it just doesn’t happen often.
What about “flash” fiction? Micro fiction? What about word count and writing tight?
First of all, micro and flash fiction are called so because of their lengths. You can read them “fast” (in a short amount of time), but they’re still written slowly and carefully, the same way you write a novel.
Word length for micro fiction is under 100 words and for flash it’s under 500 or 1000, depending on the magazine. There’s also pinhead fiction (under 50 words) and Twitterfic (140 characters or less). So, how do you “show” and not tell, how do you make things “better” and not different while still keeping within the word count?
When you start writing a story, you just write. Don’t worry about the word count until the story’s all done. At that point you can start considering what your story might be: flash, short, etc. Until your edits are all done, you won’t know for sure, but you’ll have an idea of what you’re aiming for. If you find your first draft has a word count of 650 words, that’s okay if 1000 words is considered flash, but if you want more possible markets (ones that consider under 500 words a flash story), you might want to cut 150 words.
Going back to the alien sentence – I shot at the alien, leaving a gaping hole where his head used to be. (15 words) – we could instead make it: I shot the alien, leaving a gaping hole where his head once sat. (13 words). There’s nothing wrong with the first sentence, and the revision only deletes two words. But when every word counts, two words is a good accomplishment.
Before you started reading this, you might have thought writing was easy. As I said earlier, writing is easy. GOOD writing is hard. But don’t give up. The best way not to get published is to give up. You do want to see your story in print, right?
Just remember to start with focus, a theme, your main idea. Add a balance of action, description and dialogue. Show don’t tell to make it better, not different. Keep word count in mind and don’t be afraid of critiques.