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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Why Short Fiction Is Harder to Write than It Looks," By Eric Dontigney 

Most professional writers will tell you that writing a good short story is substantially harder than writing a good novel. It sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? Science fiction and fantasy novels often run 100,000-words, give or take. It’s the rare magazine that takes short stories longer than 5,000 words. If your short story is only 5% the length of a full-blown novel, it should only be 5% as difficult, right? Sadly, it’s not.

A good short story must do all the same things as a novel, so that means the writer needs to know almost as much about the world. You need to understand the society, politics, magic, gender norms, and technology. Even if you satisfy yourself with a sketchy understanding of those things, it still takes a while to work those details out.

You still have to build fairly complete character profiles for any major players in the story. Again, even a sketchy character profile includes some level of personal history, important relationships, faults, and strengths.

In terms of story, your plot must carry the reader through some kind of crisis, catharsis, revelation, or mission that draws to a mostly satisfactory ending. This is an absolute must. If it doesn’t, you haven’t written a short story. You’ve written vignette. You have to pack in enough nuance that the plot makes sense without being obvious. The ending must seem like it can realistically stem from those details.

You still have to engage in worldbuilding. Yet, you can’t be explicit with it. There isn’t enough room. You must imply the big picture with carefully placed details. Do it right and you weave a sufficient illusion of a world to achieve suspension of disbelief. Overdo the details, though, and your story loses momentum.

This is hard to do well in 100,000-words, where you’re allowed some extraneous words or paragraphs. You can dole out information slowly to create tension and build relationships. You have space to breathe. You get none of those advantages when writing short fiction.

In short stories, every single word matters. You can’t misstep even a little with pacing. You must make your characters compelling in the first 300-500 words because you have to get on with the story after that. The story must make almost immediate sense. You can’t leave the reader in a partial state of confusion for 5 chapters because you’re at 3000 words already and have to wind the story down.

In short, you must craft a world and plot that could be a novel, but compress it down to 5000 words or less. The sheer volume of prep work and difficulty of communicating everything on the page in the right way makes short stories a non-starter for a lot of writers. They put in all that work figuring out the details of this new fictional world and think something like:

“Man, I might as well just write a novel.”

It’s also the reason why so many established writers base the short fiction they do write on their existing novels or series. It lets them skip 95% of the worldbuilding and character building. All they must do is offer a few establishing details that confirm you’re in the same world and move on to the plot. It’s a lot easier.

There are no real shortcuts to writing good short fiction. The closest thing to a shortcut is simply to consume a lot of good short stories. Seeing how other writers handle these same problems can help you clarify what is and isn’t working in your own short fiction. A few good sources for top-notch short fiction are:

·       The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy anthologies
·       The Best American Short Stories anthologies
·       Fiction magazines, like Clarkesworld or Stupefying Stories

Another good source is collections of short stories from authors you like. A few of my personal favorites are:

·       The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
·       Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
·       Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King
·       Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin
·       Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison
·       Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

Once you read a bunch of good short stories, the only thing left is to practice and then practice some more.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


1 comment:

~brb said...

One more thing: a short story is not the first chapter of your novel-in-progress! As an editor, few things are more frustrating than reading a short story that does everything right in terms of setting up the world and the characters in it, and even gets the plot off to a good start, but then doesn't so much end as stop dead in mid-air, leaving everything hanging and presumably waiting for resolution in the next chapter.

Imagine if Star Wars had ended with Han Solo frozen in carbonite and hanging on Jabba's wall. Yeah, it's like that.