I liken the writing process to using different boxes of crayons. Remember when you were a kid and got the big sixty-four color pack with the sharpener in the bottom? You could draw whole worlds in amazing detail with the color palette provided by that box. That's novel writing, with its infinite possibilities and wide open spaces.
As writers, words are our crayons and the page is our canvas. We may have 300 or more canvases to fill when writing a novel, so there is ample opportunity to use every color in the box. We can draw characters, worlds, and scenes with three-dimensional depth, adding splashes of color and deep shadows wherever we like. We are free and unfettered as we sketch our multi-picture masterpieces.
Cutting It Short
I’ve been asked why I continue to write short stories after completing three novels. Many assume that, once you master the intricacies of novel length storytelling, writing in a shorter form is a step backward. Nothing could be further from the truth. In some ways, short stories are more difficult to write than novels.
Remember the little twelve-pack of crayons (perfect for road trips and Christmas stockings)? Imagine trying to draw the same picture with the 12 that you did with the 64-pack. The bad news is—you can’t. You simply don’t have the room. You’re in short story territory now. As much as you push, pull, tug, and stuff, you’ll never fit everything on the more limited canvas of a short story.
You’re going to have to cut something, but what?
Writing short makes you focus on the details that really matter when it comes to getting the message across clearly and concisely. As in novel writing, you still need a beginning, middle, and end, but they’re going to be much closer together.
The good news is that while your palette is limited, you don’t have to use the basic colors provided in that little twelve pack. You get to choose which crayons you pull from the big box, or in our case, which words. Time to grab for those the bright colors.
Squeezing It All In
The shorter you write, the more important word choice becomes. A powerful word in just the right situation can do the same heavy lifting as a whole sentence, or sometimes even a paragraph.
If you’re drawing a Caribbean beach, you wouldn’t use just any old blue crayon for the water, right? No, you’d look for a perfect crystal clear blue—a shade that with one look tells you that you’re standing on a beach in the tropics, not the stormy Pacific Northwest.
The same holds true when we chose words for a short story, so get out your thesaurus and look for those power words that paint a picture all on their own.
Some quick tips:
- Focus on those verbs. These are action words that can do the powerlifting.
- Keep it simple. Mark Twain said, “Don’t use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do."
- Readers are drawn toward words with strong consonants.
- Alliteration—using words with the same beginning sound—is another powerful technique.
Something a Little Flashier
If you really want to challenge yourself as a writer, try flash fiction. That's the two crayons they give your kid at a restaurant. Here’s my best advice—grab the darkest crayon you’ve got and play with the shadows. You don’t have a lot of room for details, so give us one pop of color and then use contrast to your advantage.
Flash fiction is more akin to poetry when it comes to creating powerful images and deep emotions while using few words. Playing on the five senses generally yields the quickest results in this case. Sights, sounds, tastes, and smells can trigger strong memories and familiar images. Playing off those memories will have the reader filling in the colors for you. Imply the beginning, maybe give a quick peek at the middle, and then slap us hard with a visceral ending.
Some Parting Words
Whatever the size of your canvas, it’s easy to fall into the over-explaining/over-describing trap when we have so many colors at our disposal. Too many colors (or the wrong ones) can confuse the reader or push them away. Striking a proper balance is key, no matter the length of your story. Check out this post for more on the subject.
A Little Challenge
Okay people, now it’s your turn. Let’s try a little flash fiction. Grab those crayons and draw a quick, powerful picture in the comments using 25 words or less. I’ll start:
New lovers kiss. I turn away, but see your passion reflected in the glass. I swallow the shattered memory. This place is ours no longer.
Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and the soon to be released Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives). His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.