Copyright © 2011 Jerry Dunne
Short story writing is a hard discipline just like all the other fiction crafts. But I suggest here that it is trickier to get right than a novel, though it is much shorter than a novel. In particular, I explain why children’s short stories for the middle reader (8-12 year olds) are very difficult to get right.
What makes it so tricky?
Ever tried to influence someone in any way and had a whole working day in which to do it? In that time you want them to believe things they might not otherwise believe and to sway their emotions this way and that and at the end of it all hopefully have them completely convinced of your words? Yes, you’re saying to yourself, I can do it in a day. Fine. Now what about doing it in half an hour? This is probably the difference between an eighty thousand word novel and a five thousand word short story? Could you still manage it? This is the major hurdle of the short story writer.
A good short story writer knows he cannot cram the power of a good novel into a five thousand word story. He knows he cannot influence the reader in the same way. What he wants to do is to leave the reader with a good impression. If more happens, well and good, but that should be his primary aim. In fact, it’s simply that he wants to entertain the reader. If he does this well he will leave a good impression in the reader’s mind.
So why is this tricky?
Let’s continue to use the analogy of trying to influence someone. If someone begins to like you and you don’t sooner or later mess up their opinion of you they will continue to like you and the longer that happens the more influence you will generally have over them. They get used to you and so they get comfortable with you. You can pace yourself out in trying to get them to see things your way. You may simply want to entertain them with a story. Your story begins at breakfast, lingers over lunch, throwing out the plot twists along the way and only over dinner when your audience’s curiosity is desperate for the ending do you give them the final surge of action and the dénouement. But with a short story you’ve got to do all your influencing and entertaining over only breakfast. This is why the medium is so tricky to get right.
Don’t think of the short story as a short novel
So the time the reader spends with your story is an important factor. It is not a long time for you to create a world in which they can lose themselves. And look at all you have to do in that time. Now I am talking specifically about children’s short stories. You must have character development, rising plot points, action, dialogue, description; in fact, many of the ingredients of a juicy novel.
But just remember! The short story is not a smaller version of a novel! What they share in common is a use of mostly the same kind of craftsmanship. This merely helps to reinforce the common misperception that people make about them. They think because they share the same craftsmanship that they are the same thing, just of different word and time lengths. Well, yes. And that’s the whole point. Because they have very different lengths of time allotted to each of them, this means there is a great difference between them. The difference between them may or may not be greater than the similarities between them, but the difference in time and word lengths is great indeed and therefore cannot be ignored or treated lightly. Take again our analogy where we are trying to influence someone. Would you go about trying to do it in the same way if you had only half an hour in which to operate instead of eight hours? Of course you wouldn’t, unless you had a magic formula that covered all time lengths.
Once again, a short story is not a long story and should not be approached or tackled in the same way.
However, these children’s short stories – if any good – will inevitably be read out to their target audience, especially the younger readers of our age group (8-10). In fact, when I say read out I could just as easily say performed. Do you see where I’m going with this?
You can easily think about a children’s short story as though it is a sort of play. The children’s short story and the play have great similarities. Each should have a strong forward narrative drive that is quickly apparent. In other words, you must from the off get the feel that you’re embarking on an adventure. Both are very economical with words and must be or that dragging, tiring feeling creeps in that wordsy stories and plays have. Both must have strong character quickly defined and developed. Both must NEVER be boring and must have a strong sense of time. By a strong sense of time I mean the writers and actors are aware that every second counts toward something relevant. Also vitally important is a strong sense of timing, particularly where humour and suspense are concerned. And like a good play, a good children’s short story is suitable for performance.
And, I will add, writing a good play may well be the trickiest of all the fiction mediums to do well.
The stuff that makes it work
What do you want your story to be about? Get a good simple idea and match it to a good simple theme. But your idea must be workable for an active short story (as children’s short stories should be). Get this wrong at the start and your work will never work itself into an appropriate short story. The idea doesn’t have to be original or quirky (though this will help make it better). It must have legs. That’s the important thing.
You must have conflict in the story and conflict springs out of character. So make sure you have a suitable protagonist and antagonist. Take one of my stories, for example: Paddy’s Beard is about a boy with a beautiful beard who loves his beard. A bald and hairless teacher who hates hair starts at his school and insists Paddy get rid of his beard. Here we have the instant set-up for a dramatic tug of war between Paddy and the teacher. Concentrate on the tug of war, the back and forward struggle and nothing else. Remember every word counts, except for those words that don’t, and those that don’t should not be in the story. All good common sense in theory, though quite a struggle in practice as like so many other things in life.
With the right characters, conflict follows, which in turn gives you plot. And you must have a good plot (it gives the story structure, direction, flow and rising tension) and you must make the story work in scenes where the most important things are described fully. Your story will start with an opening or inciting incident where something bad happens to our hero/protagonist. You then need several other middle incidents where the protagonist struggles against the antagonist with more to lose each time. And these incidents, central to the plot and story, must be written in scenes using active and graphic language to evoke the scene. Don’t forget people will often be reading out these stories. Your language must be gripping and urgent.
Then you will have the final incident. Here you must have our hero in a position where they might lose everything they had hoped to gain. The tug of war example serves us well here. Our hero is hovering over the white line looking likely to lose. Our hero might even trip, but then recover and suddenly and unexpectedly he instead pulls the baddie back to his side of the line.
Much of the above can be applied to the novel, and although a novel may have several plot strands, and a short story is better off with just one, you can see the trickiness in trying to put all of these necessary ingredients into a tale of between roughly four and six thousand words.
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