You want to be a novelist. Is there any benefit to writing short fiction? The answer is yes, but it’s not because short stories are easier to write, nor will they make you more money. It’s because all of the skills you need to master as a novelist: emotion, character development, plot, pacing, etc, must occur in short stories. The difference is that your own shortcomings will be easier to identify in 1,000-3,000 words as opposed to 100,000 words. Short story writing is not the same challenge as writing a book—you’ll have to be very economical, but it can hone skills you need to be a successful novelist.
Learn Through Osmosis
Writing advice almost always starts with the following: read more. The more novels you read, the better you’ll understand what you like and dislike about a book. You’ll see how the masters do it, and you’ll find a style to emulate (not copy). The same goes for short stories. It will be mighty difficult to do a good job telling a short story if you don’t read them. Once you’ve absorbed dozens (or hundreds), patterns will emerge, and you’ll be able to identify the techniques authors use to tell compelling stories.
Obviously you’ll want to look to the classics, but there are plenty of modern-day short story collections that you might want to check out. The New Yorker and Harper’s publish short stories, and there are many anthologies. Short stories aren’t the staid English textbook pieces from the past. They can even go viral. Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person certainly captured the zeitgeist.
Bring Emotional Resonance
Short stories are most resonant when they capture the heart. Authors who make their readers feel will be successful. Remember, a short story contains less than 5% of the words in a novel. Yet, they need a beginning, middle, and end—and a theme. It’s a tall order, but it’s a useful way to dial in character, emotion, and the Bigger Question.
What are you trying to say about love, marriage, life, death, technology, etc? Novels also cover these topics but with a short story, you can’t hide behind a twisty plot. You’re forced to be precise about the emotional place of your protagonist. You can only show a small slice of their life, so it must be an important one.
Another common bit of writing advice is to start in the middle of the action, but never is that truer than when you only have 5,000 words to tell an entire tale. You don’t have time to waste on backstory or information that’s not pertinent to the moment in time you’re highlighting. The reader cares about what’s happening right now. When you write a short story, you’re forced to be aware of your protagonist’s history, but you don’t have room to let too much of it hit the page.
Become Your Own Editor
Self-editing is a requirement. You’ve got to learn to identify the weaknesses in your writing and story telling. I realize there are limitations to this, and that’s why beta readers or actual editors exist. However, if you’re given good advice but don’t know how to implement it because you’re blind to your own flaws, you won’t improve.
The short length of stories requires brutal self-editing. There’s no time for fluff. There’s no time to build. You must be economical with word choice, plot, backstory—the whole gamut. I want to emphasize that short story writing is a different beast than novel writing, and it shouldn’t be seen as “easier” because it’s shorter. You might never master this art, but it will hone your skills.
The hard thing about self-editing a book is its size. It’s not easy to remember where you are in the story, how much you’ve given away, or what teaser plot point you’ve introduced. What happened on page ten? Who can remember that far back? A short story is a more manageable length, and that’s what makes it good practice. Forcing yourself to nail, or at least improve upon, story telling techniques in short form will carry over into novel writing.