Saira jogged down the dirt path through the Giant City State Park, feet hitting the ground in time with the instrumental track playing through her headphones, eyes fixed on the trees ahead, hair safely concealed within her sport hijab. She loved running in the forest, alone, even if she could only find time for twenty minutes a day during the commute back from classes. For those twenty minutes she existed alone in the world, just her feet, the hard-packed trail, and the music.
Katherine emerged from the den, copies of the ritual in hand, one for each of the women who’d forgotten to print up and bring their own despite having been reminded in emails the night before. She handed one to Sharon and put the other in front of where Amy would be sitting. The third, her original, she set in the music stand she’d be reading from.“Okay, I’ve highlighted your lines in pink, Sharon, and yours in Green, Amy. Mine are blue.”
Jayden sat under the maple tree with Logan and Pete during recess, as was customary, idly picking up seeds and rubbing the fibrous matter between his fingertips. Logan was stripping them down to crush the waxy green centers between his fingertips, and Pete was idly flinging them into the air to send them helicoptering away. None of the three spoke, but all watched the domed jungle gym where the girls were perching and hanging like a murder of crows, Veronica conspicuous in her absence.
Cops made Eric nervous, even though it’d been decades since he’d broken the law. Days if you counted pot, which Eric didn’t. Sheriff Martinez and Deputy Anderson were pretty laid back about that stuff, though, as long as you didn’t make it obvious. Still, cops were cops, and the station’s interview room wasn’t very inviting. Everything was too… squared away. Too orderly. The natural world left comfortable room for chaos, as Eric would tell the kids, so order at this level was unnatural.
The Murphysboro Ladies’ Book Club had become a coven so gradually that at first nobody had noticed.
Someone on Reddit asked a question a few months ago, asking for advice on writing short stories. This was my response.
I’m a novelist, but I do write the occasional short. A short story is not a section of a novel, or a short condensed novel. They’re entirely different from the ground up, down to the base structural level.
Generally speaking, for most genres, a novel boils down to “Protagonist overcomes various difficulties to accomplish something, learning a lesson and growing as a person in the process.” Sometimes it’s “fails to learn something” or “fails to accomplish their goal” but the big story question often boils down to “do they experience the growth necessary to carry the day?”
In long form fiction this can be diagrammed out as:
- A sympathetic character
- Has a problem
- Goes through a try/fail cycle in an effort to overcome this problem
- Eventually has a crisis where everything comes together
- Carries the day through personal growth and revelation (or fails to)
This is not how short stories work. You don’t have time for a series of try/fail cycles, and the last part (victory or failure) is boring because there are only two options.
A short story is structured more like a joke. There’s a set-up that gives the reader the context they need to “get” the ending, and an ending that elicits an emotional response. The novel ending (success or failure, growth or stagnation) requires more set-up than the short can provide to be really satisfying.
This isn’t to say that strong conflict can’t work in a short. It can! It works great! But you need a bigger resolution than “does A overcome B or does B overcome A?”
You can write a story about the resolution of someone’s efforts if there’s another layer to it.
So. Endings that are satisfying:
- The ending exposes something previously hidden to the reader, like Charlton Heston escaping from his captors to discover that IT WAS EARTH ALL ALONG! The meat of the story is intended to misdirect the reader, but the surprise itself has to be logically consistent when considered after the fact. Just be careful to be fair to the reader… your revelation must make sense within the context of the set-up. Wacky random shit is unsatisfying.
- A character makes a difficult (and ideally unexpected) decision. Just make sure the choice isn’t an easy one. Make it a true dilemma. The surprise for the reader is what path the protagonist chooses. The meat of the story is the character working over and considering his options while outside forces attempt to sway him.
- A mystery or a puzzle story where the truth is worked out/revealed at the end. This is different from #1, above, because the story is about the attempt to solve the mystery itself, not a matter of misdirection. The meat of the story is the protagonist investigating, finding clues, etc, leading to an unexpected (but logical) solution.
So, for example, take a story about a man lost in the wilderness. A novel would track his internal journey as he lets go whatever holds him back and becomes someone new and capable of surviving and finding his way home.
A short story can’t set up the survival itself as a meaningful conflict (you don’t have the pages) so would use his attempts to survive to misdirect us from some truth (he is in a VR game gone wrong!), or to externalize a choice he needs to make (should he retreat from his failed relationship into hermitude or give his wife another chance?), or to give him the opportunity to figure out who stranded him and why (the butler did it!)
Every element and aspect of your story must support and advance every other part of your story. It has to be well orchestrated. Anything that doesn’t support the rest of the structure… anything that can be cut, should be cut.
That’s literally everything I know about short fiction, and it’s all opinion, and entirely subjective WHAT A TWIST!
©2013-2015 Michael Coorlim
This is a story I wrote over a year ago, set in the same storyline as the apocalyptic short story collection Grief.
Pudgy fingers walked Captain Crimson up the earthen mound, past the splayed bodies of his fallen companions. He tilted from side to side, each foot glancing the dirt only briefly, accompanied by a mechanical tch-tch-tch sound. His unarticulated knees were incapable of bending, keeping him from approximating anything resembling a real walk, but Brandon didn’t mind.
Before the action figure had been given to him, Captain Crimson had been some character from one of his dad’s old comics. Brandon liked comics, he liked the idea of comics, but he couldn’t afford to buy any himself and his dad’s were all expensive and important and kept in bags kept in boxes kept in the attic. Brandon’s dad had bought them when he was a kid, and someday they’d be worth a lot of money.
He did give Brandon an old crate of his action figures, though, because they weren’t in the boxes anymore and so weren’t worth anything. He recognized a few of them, like Spiderman and Batman and Superman, but others — like the one he called Captain Crimson — were mysteries. He thought he remembered that his dad said that The Captain’s name was Adam, but he liked coming up with his own characters and his own stories. Batman could stay Batman, but Adam in his red and blue jumpsuit became Captain Crimson. The green guy — not the Hulk, the one who looked like a pile of moldy leaves — became Garbage Man. The guy who looked like his head was on fire was The Flaming Scotsman, because Brandon liked doing the accent.
“Ach,” Brandon said in falsetto. “Ye must avenge us, Captain Crimson. Punish Giant Spiderman for his evil deeds!”
Some of the action figures were much larger than the others. In the comics he’d drawn in the notebooks in his locker, Brandon had explained that this was because they were evil mutant clones. He’d made several such comics and passed them around to his friends, who generally agreed that he should send them in to Marvel or DC and get a job making real comics. Brandon kept forgetting to find out how much he’d need for the shipping. Money at home was tight, but Brandon was pretty sure that he could convince his dad that getting a comic book job would bring in enough money to cover it with the first paycheck. Assuming it was legal for 5th-graders to get that kind of job, of course.
He was getting a little old for action figures, honestly, but playing out in the back yard was a good way to plan out his next notebook comic. It was peaceful back there, by the shed, and the pile of bricks made a great evil fortress. More importantly, it was quiet enough that he couldn’t hear what was going on in the house, and his playing didn’t disturb his dad.
“I can’t do it alone,” Brandon said in Captain Crimson’s deep resonant voice. “I’ll need help from the Star Treks.”
He didn’t look up as his dad stepped out into the back yard. Didn’t see that his eyes were red from the crying that Brandon had come into the back yard to avoid. He pursed his lips shut and stopped playing, staring down at the toys in his hands, moving them back and forth idly.
He heard his dad approach, but his father didn’t say anything more at first. He could feel the gaze on him, could tell that his dad wanted him to look up, but he just… couldn’t. The figures in his hands walked in place idly as the awkwardness grew. Maybe if he didn’t say anything his dad would just walk off again and he could get back to playing.
He didn’t look up. “Yeah?”
His father knelt next to him. “Brandon, I… we need to talk about something.”
“Am I in trouble?” He couldn’t think of anything bad he’d done recently, but Mrs. Fontana had it out for him, and was always trying to get him in trouble.
“No.” His father placed a hand on his shoulder, and he looked at the man, eyes focused on the familiar nose, mouth, and jaw. “Oh, no, Brandon, no.”
He looked up again, figures in his hands falling still.
“This is very important. Okay?”
A fluttery feeling started to rise up from deep within Brandon’s gut, a strange clawing urge that screamed at him to run, to throw the toys at his father, to grab a brick and smash something. This, his dad’s behavior, the way he was trying to bring something up, something terrible, was all too familiar. “What is it?”
“You remember that asteroid they said they found yesterday?”
That was unexpected. “Um. Yeah. They mentioned it in science class.”
“Well. It’s… they say it’s not going to be as far away as they thought.”
“What?” Brandon shifted his feet under his seat. “Is it going to hit us?”
“They can’t tell yet. Maybe. But even if it misses us, it’ll be close enough to be really bad.”
“Oh. How bad?”
His dad seemed uncomfortable. “Bad. Earthquakes. Bad storms. Even if it misses…”
“Are we going to go stay with Grandpa?”
“We can. Yeah. We should. But, Brandon…” he sat down, picking up one of the action figures. “I have to tell you. You need to know. It’s… probably not going to be okay.”
“Grandpa said I shouldn’t tell you, you know?”
Brandon nodded. He’d heard his father having a whisper-argument on the phone that morning.
“But you’re going to hear about it. It’s all over the TV, and everyone’s talking about it. People are going to get funny, and you’re a smart kid, Brandon. I told him that I can’t protect you from this. Like with Mom. Remember? We tried to keep that from you. Remember?”
Brandon remembered. His expression didn’t change. He could see the tears glimmering in his dad’s eyes, and he knew that he was doing that thing where he tried to be more of a grown-up than he was. It wasn’t that his dad was a big kid, but when something bad happened he tried to be like Grandpa. Quiet. Dignified. Brave. And that was fine for Grandpa — he had been in War, and he’d shot people. But it wasn’t who Dad was, and when Dad tried to be like Grandpa it always made Brandon feel bad. Like there was something wrong with being Dad, and there totally wasn’t.
Sometimes, he’d learned, he himself needed to be like Grandpa. For Dad’s sake. So for now he didn’t think too hard about what was happening.
He didn’t want to say anything that would make Dad cry, but that was hard, because sometimes being strong like Grandpa was something that made Dad cry. He wondered if Dad felt the same way when he tried to make Grandpa proud of him.
Like with Mom.
Dad continued. “So I wanted to give you the chance to, you know, ask questions, or anything, in a safe place before you hear about it somewhere else.”
“Are we going to die?”
The corners of Dad’s mouth twitched, and he looked away. “Maybe. They don’t know. There’s a chance.”
He knew his dad was lying, but he knew his dad had to lie, so he didn’t call him on it. “Okay.”
“But whatever happens, you’ll be with me, and with Grandpa. People are going to get a little crazy. Sad and angry. But we’ll be together.”
“Why angry?” Sad, he could understand.
“People get funny when they’re scared,” Dad said. “They look for excuses to feel other things. Things to be mad at.”
Like Grandpa. “Okay. When are we going?”
“Do you want to say goodbye to anyone? Stevie or Paul?”
Brandon thumped Captain Crimson against the dirt a few times. “I… no. I don’t want to. Is that bad?”
His father hugged him. “No. No, it’s okay. You can feel about this however you want, okay champ?”
“Okay.” Part of him really wanted to say his goodbyes. He’d never see Stevie or Paul again, probably. Maybe in heaven. Well, Paul, maybe. But it would be… awkward. Better to just go and not make a big deal about it. He could get all emotional around Dad, but not in front of the guys. That’d be like crying in front of Grandpa.
Dad stood, brushing the dirt from his hands. “It’ll take a few hours to pack up. Then we’ll head up to the cabin.”
“Can I come in in a few minutes?”
His father tousled his hair. “Take all the time you need. I can handle the packing.”
“I just need a few minutes. Hey dad?”
“Can we bring your comics from the attic? And maybe read them together?”
His dad turned away quickly. “Sure champ. Anything you want.”
He watched as his Dad headed back into the house, then returned to his toys. He picked up Captain Crimson and took him around the corner of the shed, making the whooshing sound that indicated flight. The Captain landed in front of a brick set on its end in the corner of the yard. He knelt next to it, using the action figure’s arms to dig up the dirt in front of it. With the care and patience of an archaeologist, he unearthed a Wonder Woman figure, clearing specks of mud from its face, clearing its blue eyes.
“I’m coming, Mom,” he whispered in his own voice, stroking its plastic head with his thumb. “Me and Dad and Grandpa. We’re coming.”