As a means of focusing our efforts and stimulating creativity, the writing group I’m in decided to start nominating a theme to write to for each meeting. What we wrote, whether poem, prose, lyrics or stream of consciousness, was up to us. The point of the exercise is to flex the creativity muscle in our brain. This week’s theme was the number 2111. But how did I go about coming up with something to write given just a number?
My first thought was that I’d write a short story. My second thought was that it would a fantastic / science fictional story. They were the easy thoughts. I like writing stories and I like fantasy. There were two more difficult thoughts ahead though; how do I write a short story and what is 2111?
I put my creative hat on and brainstormed some ideas. Here is what I got:
- As a year 2111 is 100 years in the future.
- As a time 21:11 is 24hr notation for 9:11pm
- As a postcode in Australia (because that’s where I live derrr…) it is a bunch of suburbs in Sydney.
- 2111 seconds = about 35 minutes.
- 2111 days = 5.78 years
- 2111 hours = 87 days, 22 hours and 48 minutes or approximately a season or financial quarter.
- If you use it as a colour in RGB notation it is a dark blue
- It could be room 11 on the 21st floor
- Or unit 21 or building 11
- A barcode, patient number or test subject.
- It could be the 21st of November.
Man, it could be just about anything. I also thought it could be the number of words in a short story. You get the picture. I liked the idea that it was a countdown.
I haven’t written a short story since year 12 (a fair few years ago now) when I did creative writing. I’ve written a novel, but then I’ve read many, many novels. I almost never read short stories. So I had to start a-learnin’. A short story is usually somewhere around 1,000 – 10,000 words in length. I guess you could say it is any length that allows you to write a complete story that can be summed up in a handful of scenes. After doing my research and thinking through it logically, here are the guidelines I came up with:
- < 10,000 words. This is a short story after all.
- no more than 4 scenes. See #1 for reasoning.
- 1 main character with no more than 2 supporting characters. If you have too many characters, the reader will get caught up in trying to keep all the characters in their head.
- 1 – 4 locations assuming a character driven story, otherwise 1-2 locations if one of them is central to the story. This directly relates to you needing the story to be short.
- Thought provoking. The story had to set up an encounter / situation that, when resolved, would cause the reader to stop and think. A novel should probably make the reader think, but you’ve got a lot longer to lead the reader along in a novel. The short stories I’ve read where I really enjoyed them ended with me having to think about something. They made me wonder at the ending or made me read back over the story.
- Punchy writing. With a short budget of words to play with I’d have to make sure I didn’t waffle (like I do here). Exploring the diversity of a character’s emotion and the interplay between external and internal functions of their lives is not really on the cards for a short story. If the point of the short story is to do that, you’d need to concentrate on just one thing. In a novel you have chapters and chapters of time to set up situations that test a character and yet more chapters to explore the repercussions of their choices. That’s kind of what novels do to a large extent. Short stories, not so much.
- Easily understood world. In a fantasy novel it is possible to construct and describe a rich world with great depth and intricacy. Go read George R.R. Martin for an example. In a short story you’ll need to cut out everything that distracts from the story (obviously you need to do that with novels too, but there is a much lower threshold in short stories). If you set your story in a non-Earth setting, make sure there is a reason for the non-Earth setting. Don’t mention dragons and elves if there are no dragons or elves in your story or if their existence doesn’t directly influence the outcome.
- If you use fantasy elements, make sure there is a point. There used to be a TV series called Alien Nation which was just a cop show where all racial issues were projected on these bald alien guys. The show could have been done with almost no alteration by replacing all the bald alien guys with minority actors. There was no point to the whole “alien” part except to allow the shows writers to show racism without actually picking a race to be the target. Don’t do this. Instead of substituting elves for homosexuals, for example, just use actual human homosexuals to make your point. Otherwise I think it comes off as being a bit condescending. I mean a law banning elf/elf marriage? You don’t think we can see through the flimsy pretext? I think you’d get more mileage from being upfront so you have more room to explore the issue.
- Really heavily proof read. Novels obviously need to be proof read, but what I mean here is that a short story must stick to its point and because it is short each individual sentence carries more weight. I’ve read novels that take a couple of pages to describe something and describe the main characters reactions. As such each sentence has less responsibility to the novel as a whole. In a short story, each sentence, more so than novels, needs to work hard. Don’t describe the same thing multiple times, unless that is the point of the story. Don’t make the reader go back and re-read a section of heavy sentences (unless that’s the point). Again, this applies to novels, but the threshold is lower.
I decided to write a short story about a man who has a countdown timer ticking away on their chest. No-one else can see it. He has to look in a mirror to be able to see it. But it’s there.
From that number, it starts ticking away. Days, hours and minutes descend inexorably toward zero. So I have 1 main character (with the timer) and a few of locations with only 2 locations being really important to the story. It is set in Melbourne, Australia in the present day, but could be just about anywhere. The idea is to provoke the question of what happens at zero. I provide an answer, but leave it open ended. I hope my readers will starting thinking of what they would do with such a timer and wondering if it resets and if it resets, what has to be done to reset it?
I’ll post this short story in the coming weeks once I’ve gone over it a million bazillion times to make it as good as I can. Perhaps I’ll include the original as well so you can see what I had to do to make it reasonable.
Are there other short story guidelines worth having?