Articles, Writing

Brevity and Briefs: Reflecting on a Short Story

Recently I submitted a new piece of work to my friend Kent Shawn as part of his short story competition. I decided to craft a brand new piece for the occasion and duly planned and wrote a lockdown-themed thriller story entitled Left Outside.

This was a difficult challenge but also one I relished.

If you’ve by chance read any of my previous short stories that are posted on my website (for example my last one, Growing Storm), you may notice that they are on the long side of “short”; indeed, Growing Storm weighed in at approximately 12,000 words.

Kent’s competition, however, had a word-count limit of 5,000 words, less than half of the length of Growing Storm.

Problem? More a challenge.

I was pleased with how Left Outside came together. Firstly, having the goal of 5,000 words – and a deadline – focused my energies quite dramatically. It was great to be writing to a “brief” that I wasn’t able to cheat on. I had to get the story under 5,000 words, and I had to have it done and submitted by July 1st this year. The latter was a goal I easily made, though I didn’t rush the piece at all; I estimate that Left Outside took about 6 weeks to put together.

In some of the video blogs I’ve seen from Kent he’s said that some writers, when faced with the 5,000-word limit, have bemoaned that the limit was restrictive. I could’ve been the same; indeed, back in my final year at University, I complained that my creative writing dissertation piece had too small a wordcount at 8,000 words and my complaint successfully had that increased to “up to 10,000”, to the chagrin of some classmates but to the relief of me and some other like-minded writers.

And this is the journey of discovery I found myself embarking upon: to make my story “work” for this small amount of words I had to look at my writing style and adapt it to suit this brief:

  • My fiction prose is plot-heavy: building a cohesive plot in such a short amount of words can be quite difficult because there’s simply not enough narrative room to have that beginning, middle and end as you may expect. With Left Outside, I had to quickly throw my characters in and introduce them, while imbuing a sense of the setting. Instead, with a piece this short, it’s better to focus on a moment in a greater story perhaps that could be expanded upon. In Left Outside, we open with the protagonist, Adam, abandoned on a gravel path in the middle of some deserted location. We don’t know how he got there, or what happened prior – these are all narrative points that we could’ve expanded upon with more words to play with.

    But this is advantageous in a way because we the reader then experience the discovery at the same time that the protagonist does and this was useful in creating the sense of mystery and confusion that I wanted to start off with. I gave the reader very little information as to what had happened, and I let Adam be the audience surrogate for that initial discovery.

    Indeed, one of the struggles perhaps I encountered was the switch from writing mainly plot to going more character-led. One of my writing weaknesses, I feel, is my characters exist to serve the plot. In Left Outside, I didn’t have “time”, so to speak, to waste on setting up the plot so I had to focus on making some vivid characters. I don’t think it was entirely successful, but it was a learning experience.

    I think, also, I was ambitious in trying to still tell a complete story within the confines of 5,000 words. There’s perhaps more mystery in Left Outside than I initially intended but this is because I didn’t have the wordcount left over to expand.

  • Description must be economical: I’ve been complimented on several occasions for my vivid worldbuilding and description. But there’s simply no room in a story of 5,000 words to describe every brick in every wall, every blade of grass. While I was editing the story, I picked out extraneous description to the minimum, almost, required to tell the story. But I didn’t want to make the prose bland and perfunctory.

    Description in this story was limited, really, to pertinent details that the reader needed to know. It was a good exercise in paring down some of that description without losing the sense of what’s being described and keeping it at a suitable level of prose without it turning into a dull-to-read recount. That said I still think there are definite moments where a sense of the place – and the feeling within the place – is built up and concentrated.

These two aspects meant challenging my two strongest storytelling skills – plot and description – for this project. In retrospect now having submitted – but without knowing the results of the contest as yet – leaves me thinking, yes, this is perhaps what I could’ve done differently, but also I feel quite content with how the project turned out. I’m very pleased with Left Outside, it’s not perfect but what I can take away from this is what I can improve and do better with next time. Indeed, reflecting now, I still feel the balance of plot, description and character was a little off; but this is something to work on going forward.

It’s important with writing not to stay in a comfort zone and only ever write what you know, but you should challenge yourself to write new things you may not have considered before, and practice skills to keep your writer’s skillset supple. With Left Outside I am thinking how to better plan out stories like this because I still think I put too much plot in, and what sort of ideas would perhaps work as more “moments” for a short story like this. But knowing the word count in advance was certainly helpful – to paraphrase an excellent simile from a writer friend – to know the size of the mould into which the jelly (story) is to be poured to see if it fits.

In editing the story I was conscious that this was for a competition so treated it perhaps more judiciously when it came to editing than I would’ve for stories I simply publish on my website. The story went a couple of times to a couple of writer friends who offered feedback on successive drafts and also to a friend who hadn’t read it at all and was given the third draft that resulted from earlier feedback. This is a good approach, mixing feedback from those familiar with the work and it’s development to those who come to it totally fresh. But I didn’t want to over-edit the piece so once I was happy with it, the fourth draft became the submission.

In dealing with the feedback it was important, also, to not just try to please all the suggestions but take the ones that were achievable into the draft. Good commenters giving feedback will make suggestions, well aware that their suggestions may or may not be taken. There were some great suggestions that would’ve needed a substantial rewrite to achieve, and I was happy with the sections in question, though gave them a good spit and polish. But the feedback that would’ve required a more structural re-think also had ideas that were great and would’ve been implementable if the story could’ve been longer. That too is a skill to hone, of knowing what feedback (and don’t get me wrong, it was all good feedback, I wish I could have done it all) is achievable for a specific project.

Writing Left Outside, though, was a great learning experience and I am still very pleased with the resultant story. I only hope the competition judges feel the same, too! But more importantly, I feel, it’s renewed my sense that short stories are good proving grounds for plot ideas, writing styles or character situations. I’ll endeavour to hone my brevity skills with more sub-10,000-word short stories in the future, I’ve left this project with many ideas for new shorts!

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