Cut It Out: Keeping Your Short Stories Short

The following is a guest post by Tyrel Kessinger, whose poetry appeared in issue 20 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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When it comes to writing short stories, especially flash fiction, we simply have to keep in mind their leanness, their small tautness. There’s no time for long-winded passages or overwrought explanations, no time to waste in the bog. Instead, think of your writing as the striker of the proverbial hot iron. You need to hit hard, hit quick, and be swiftly shaping the heated elements into something worth a damn. To that end, I’d like to highlight a few places where you can start trimming the fat.

  • Don’t start at the beginning. Your first paragraph might seem like the place where your story starts but take another look at the second paragraph or the next one and evaluate if one wouldn’t better serve the story. With my own writing I often find that my opening paragraph, even after polishing, doesn’t always gel with the rest of the story.  After finding a writing groove with a story things can often change from how you started be it in tone or style or character development.
  • Drawing out on an inconsequential scene. No one needs to know how your character (let’s call her Greta) turns off her car, gets out of the car, opens the trunk by turning her keys in the lock to get the groceries out, walks the pathway to her door, puts her keys in the lock, opens the door, and yada yada yada. You can save yourself a lot of real estate by saying these things much more simply: “When Greta got home she grabbed her groceries and went inside.” 
  • Too much description. We don’t need three sentences describing what Greta’s car looks like or how hard it was raining when she went into the grocery store. Lengthy flashbacks and descriptions of dreams also apply here. It’s hard to use flashbacks properly without weighing down your story and no one cares about anyone’s dreams other than their own, even in a short story. This also bridges into my next point.
  • Over-explaining. Short stories ain’t got time for all that. You should trust, if you’ve done the rest of your job well, that your readers are smart enough to assume certain things going into the reading. Let’s say your story centers around a small town where one day a year all the animals in the vicinity gain the power to talk. There’s no need for a page long explanation. In this world, this is just a thing that occurs. We all know this is fiction and we know that anything can happen here.

Obviously, you should keep in mind that any and all of these very tenuous “rules” are meant to be broken at any time, especially if you can spin any of them in a fresh way. So if you feel something is vital to your story you should certainly keep it in. But if you feel like your writing is missing a certain zip or lively forward movement then these are some good places where you might find a bit of chaff.

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Tyrel Kessinger lives in Louisville, Ky. He has two kids and one wife. You can find his work in a lot of places and forthcoming from Crab Creek Review and Washington Square.

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