How to write a short story. Great topic for a place putting out a short story anthology. Several of our members have expressed being intimidated by short stories, so we wanted to give some advice on how to approach them.
They aren’t lions, they won’t snap your hand off if you get too close. A short story is just like a novel, but shorter. There are differences of course, a short story is less complex, with fewer characters, locations, and plot threads. But it is still a story, and if you can write a novel, you can write a short story.
- Where Do You Get Your Ideas? – The same place you get your novel ideas. Only instead of fleshing them out, you distill them down until you’ve found a single thing to pursue – an image, an emotion, a particular character. An idea about a fallen star becomes intimate and personal, instead of that fallen star igniting an epic war.
- ‘In Late, Out Early’ – You may have heard that one before. It is as true as ever for short stories. You want to start your story as close to the action as you can. It may help to make a list of everything you know about the story, the events, the characters, what the ending might be. See how late you can start the story and still have it make sense. Likewise, once you’ve said your piece, you want to get out of there. There’s not a lot of room to ramble in a short story.
- MICE Quotient – I’m a huge fan of the Writing Excuses podcast, and one thing they teach is the MICE Quotient. Created by Orson Scott Card, the MICE Quotient stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event, and is the idea that each story is made up of these elements in different proportions. A story on the short end (less than 7000 words) will have one, maybe two elements. A story on the higher end (less than 15,000) will have up to three, maybe four. A novel will have all four elements. Let’s look at them closer.
- Milieu – The location or world of your story (The Hobbit)
- Idea – An unanswered question (Murder mysteries)
- Character – Focuses on the character(s) and how they change (Romances)
- Event – Some big, external happening or problem, like an explosion or alien invasion. (Independence Day)
What should you care about the MICE quotient?
The MICE quotient, when used in a short story, is great for combating story bloat. When you feel like your story is getting too long, take a look, are you introducing too many elements, trying to follow too many plot threads? Is the story you want to tell focused on the character, but you are over there trying to solve a murder mystery? It might be time to pull back or eliminate those extra threads to tighten the story up
The MICE quotient is also fantastic for making sure your short story feels like a short story. A common mistake new writers make is coming up with a short story that feels more like a novel excerpt. Why does that happen? Most likely, plot elements have been introduced, but not fully resolved, or resolved in an unexpected order. The MICE Elements should cycle back around full circle in one way or another.
- Milieu – The story returns to the location the story started in
- Idea – The central question is answers
- Character – The character has changed, or is satisfied with the way they are (or is dead)
- Event – The problem has been resolved (or everyone is dead)
Another way to make an ending feel complete is to close the MICE elements in reverse order of you opening them.
- If you start a story with a character leaving home, and learning something along the way, you want to close the character arc plot thread first, before having them come home (these can happen very close together in the text, however) – <M><C></C></M>
- MICE Quotient and Length – Another thing I hear from writers that are new to short stories is that they’ve tried them, but they keep making them too long. Mary Robinette Kowal has a formula for that! You can estimate the length of a story by looking at the number of characters, locations, and MICE quotient elements, and doing some math with them.
- Ls=((C+L) *750)*M/1.5
- Add the number of characters (C) and the number of locations (L). Multiply that sum by 750. Then multiply that number by the number of MICE elements (M) the story incorporates and divide by 1.5. (Taken from Writing Excuses liner notes)
- This assumes that you require 750 words per character and location to flesh out each character and location in a fulfilling way.
- A story with 5 characters, 3 locations, and 4 MICE quotient elements will end up being around 16,000 words (too long for our anthology)
- A story with 1 character, 2 locations, and 2 MICE quotient elements will end up being around 3000 words
- A story with 3 characters, 2 locations, and 2 MICE quotient elements will be around 6250 words, perfect for our monthly challenges.
You can use this formula as a diagnostic tool as well – Are you way over or below your estimate? You may be under-describing, or overly verbose, or you may have miscounted the number of elements you are including. Look at your formula again to see where you need to add substance or cut down.
- Try/Fail Cycles – A try/fail cycle is a way to introduce and keep tension up in a story – instead of letting your character have what they want on the first try, they need to work for it. The rule of 3 is often given in novels; a character should try and fail 3 times before they succeed with their task. But in short stories, we just don’t have the space. Try cutting back your try/fail cycles to just one or two attempts before your character succeeds.
- Let it Breath – Short stories are the place to experiment, to try writing interesting characters and locations and plot ideas that don’t necessarily fit into a novel. Take your time with them, there’s no need to rush through. I’m not saying to be overly wordy, no. I’m saying you don’t need to be overly complex, you can take a simple idea and explore it to its fullest instead of rushing through and tackling a handful of interesting ideas at the same time. Not to say that a short story can’t be complex, they can, but short stories aren’t a sprint, you can take your time to set up the scene, explore the emotions of your character, and make sure the story is rich and interesting. Less is more, in the short story world.