Thursday, February 14, 2013

Guest Post: Keeping it Short ~ by Danielle Ackley-McPhail


We have another informative guest post from Danielle Ackley-McPhail, this time on writing short fiction and understanding the differences between it and a novel. Here she shares some concise advice on how to manage the details.  

Again let’s welcome Danielle!

Keeping it Short – When the Words Count ~ By Danielle Ackley-McPhail

In writing, as in everything else, most of us have a natural range. Some people are right handed, some people left, and just to screw up the curve, some can use either one interchangeably. You have sopranos…tenors…basses, and the rare vocalist who can manage to bounce all along the range. In writing it is a touch simpler.

Some people excel at novels, others at short fiction. (We don’t talk about those who can do either one with ease…they tend to get a lot of dirty looks from the other writers.) Now, just because you have an innate length doesn’t mean you can’t hone your ability to write longer or shorter. It’s all about scope and scale. If you can get a handle on those you can run up and down the word-count range with the best of them, no matter your natural impulses.

Think of a short story as what you see through a telephoto lens. You zoom in right on a narrow image and capture it. You go for the crisp, tight detail and it’s all about that. Short stories capture an instant, a single thread. There are generally only a few characters dealing with one event or goal. The action/tension comes fast and every word leads toward the resolution, with little to no wandering. It is more about what is happening than who it is happening too. Don’t get me wrong…this doesn’t mean you get a free pass on characterization. What it does mean is that in short fiction character details tend to be the type that move the plot forward, whereas in longer works the author has more room to explore the character’s depths for their own sake and not for what they offer toward resolving the plot.

Now, nothing is universal. There are always exceptions, but for the purpose of discussion I have outlined some of the usual differences between short fiction and novels. Just know…if there is a “rule” somewhere, writers will break it…

Short Story


  • Detail relevant to the plot
  • Detail that builds the characters and universe
  • Details relevant to the plot
  • Brief build-up
  • Mostly action/tension leading to the resolution
  • Detailed build-up intermixed with action/tension leading to the resolution
  • Single thread of action
  • Single or minimal POV character
  • Multiple threads of action
  • One or more Primary characters
  • Several secondary characters
  • Scale is equivalent to a scene or an episode
  • Scale is equivalent to a movie or series season.

Establishing Character in Short Fiction

Short stories have a limit. Go past that limit and they are no longer short stories. This is a fundamental fact many writers have trouble grasping (says the editor who has received 15,000-word “short” stories). So, how do you keep the words reined in and still have a distinct, recognizable character? You cherry-pick details. Find one or two elements that make your character unique and introduce them early, then find ways to reinforce those elements throughout the story without going into great details. For example, I have a character named Scotch. He’s a wiseass. Most of the time this does not come into play, but once in a while a natural progression in the dialogue will leave an opening for a smart-ass comment. Scotch never misses an opportunity to jump in. It is always brief and always in relation to what is already happening, but it is enough to set this character off from, Kat, his sarcastic, “straight-man” companion. Now for Kat there are two things I use to distinguish her…at random times the events happening inspire thoughts of her PawPaw that somehow tie into what is happening; and when she is tense, her gun is like her security blanket. Those aren’t a lot to go on when defining who a person is, but they are distinct enough details that you feel you know them and care what happens to them when I keep dealing them blow after blow on the way to the climactic ending.

legacy of stars

Keep Your Eye on the Goal

As a short story writer you have one goal: Keep it short. That means your characters have one goal. Stick to that one goal and you can write a short story. Start pulling in multiple threads and get ready to find beta readers for another novel. In a short story everything that happens should have the express purpose of taking you one step closer to the story’s resolution. Anything that doesn’t do that has to go. Okay…most of everything that doesn’t do that has to go. (Like I said…writers…rules…things are going to break.)

Doing a 180

Not going to spend too much time on this, but I wanted to at least touch on it, because, you know some people have the opposite problem. How do you move past short to novel length? It helps if you think of a novel as a series of short stories all headed in the same direction, only not in an orderly fashion. They jumble together, they touch, they even trample across each other’s paths until threads get tangled, but in the end…if you do your job “write”…it all makes satisfying sense. The difference in a novel is that some of these “stories” are the getting-to-know-you kind, while others are the action-packed rush. The key is that each one builds on the next with all the little sub-threads coming together for an overall goal.

Summing Up

So…have short stories frustrated you in the past? Feel there is always more story to tell, until suddenly you have a book? If you want to keep it short, keep it tight. Ease your way in. Maybe try writing one encapsulated scene. Pick a character. Pick one goal. Pick one conflict. Pick one opponent. Find a twist. Find a solution. Do that over and over. Make it complete. Don’t worry about if it is a full story, just get used to dealing with one goal. Make it interesting, make it intense, either with action or emotion. When you are done, take a look and see what things look like under a microscope. It doesn’t matter if there is more story to tell as long as you resolved the primary objective of your scene. After all, nothing saying you can’t just write another story!

Danielle Ackley-McPhail’s novels include The Eternal Cycle (first three titles link to samples of the books) - Yesterday's Dreams, Tomorrow's Memories, Today’s Promise, the writers guide The Literary Handyman, and more. She edits the Bad-Ass Faeries anthologies and Dragon’s Lure, has contributed to numerous anthologies, and has recently published a collection of science fiction short stories called A Legacy of Stars. For more about Danielle link to her sites below:

To read Danielle’s informative first post here at Layers of Thought link to “The Changing Face of Publishing” via its title. It’s about the choices that writers have around getting their books published.

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