I always encourage new writers to experiment with short fiction. There are numerous benefits to be gained from practicing the short form. First, you learn, by necessity, to be more efficient with your writing. The shorter the story, the more you have to scrutinize each and every word, eliminating redundancies and maximizing clarity with as few words as possible. Second, you get more experience working through the publishing process—formatting manuscripts for submission, writing cover letters, working with editors, etc—than you would by writing one or two books a year. Last, publishing short fiction improves your author brand. In order to get a story into an anthology, you need to get past the gatekeepers (editors and publishers), proving you have at least some chops at this writing thing. 

When you make the decision to attempt your first piece of publishable short fiction, first you need to consider format and size. There are many different terms related to format and size, but I think you can really break it down to three: microfiction, flash fiction, and short stories. 

Microfiction (1-500 words) 

This is the shortest format, requiring the most efficient prose. Every single word, even the articles, carries significant weight. The general flow of a piece of microfiction is not unlike your basic joke—introduction, setup, punchline. You don’t have much time for much else. All that matters for the story to have an effect is to start in one place and end up in another. 

Here’s an example: https://thearcanist.io/green-dawn-7a18163bd9f3 

Flash Fiction (500-1500 words) 

The next step in size is flash fiction. These stories are typically a single scene focusing on a single character. However, you have more space for character development and even worldbuilding. Again, verbal real estate is at a premium, so choose each of your words wisely. When you can, chose one word to replace two or even three (such as replacing “he rushed through the forest, leaping over branches and dodging trees” with “he bounded through the forest”). Flash writers often experiment with narrative style, such as disguising their stories as encyclopedia entries, or treading a trail to revelation rather than presenting a full character arc. 

Here’s an example: https://transmundanepressblog.wordpress.com/2020/08/15/the-sun-flight-by-jm-williams/ 

Aeryn Rudel is a prolific short fiction author, and he recently published some tips on writing flash fiction. His formula for successful flash fiction includes four key points:  

  • Start near the end.
  • Limit the number of key characters in the narrative. 
  • Limit the number of locations. 
  • Use an omniscient POV. 

This first three points apply in scale to any sort of short fiction. The shorter your work, the fewer characters, locations, and scenes you should incorporate. This is just the reality of limited space.  

Moreover, the shorter the work, the closer to the climax you need to start. Not just closer to the inciting incident, but the climax itself. You can, in fact, start your story after the inciting incident of the narrative, and refer back to it as you go. The inciting incident is that point of change in the world that starts the narrative moving towards the climax. In a portal fantasy, for example, this is the point at which the portal appears and the character arrives in the new world. Most everything coming before is just character development. In my story “Dead or Alive,” the reader enters the story as the main character is already being attacked by a zombie wolf. The inciting incident is how that wolf came to be raised from the dead to begin with, and this happens off stage, before the story begins.  

As for the last point, I tend to go the opposite with my flash fiction, and use a very limited 3rd-person POV. I find this is the best option if you can limit your narrative to a single main character. If you need more than one, you should probably employ omniscience.  

A lot of flash and microfiction in particular tends to be unconventional in terms of narrative style and structure. You’ll find a selection of avantgarde “stories” on sites like Daily Science Fiction. However, short form fiction in general tends to be very character centered. The character gives the reader something to relate to, or attach to, within the limited space.

Short Story (1500-15000 words) 

Everything longer than flash fiction but shorter than a novella or novelette can be considered a standard short story. Here you have the space to develop a full character (or multiple character) arc and plot, and you are expected to do just that. That doesn’t mean your prose shouldn’t be clean and efficient, though. In the past, a standard SF/F magazine might accept a story that’s 15k words long. But today, a lot of newer publishers consider 5-8k as the sweet spot. Especially with SF/F, it means you need to be very tight with your worldbuilding. Anything that isn’t relevant to the narrative at hand, no matter how fun or amazing the idea, must be cut.  

Here’s an example: https://thenewaccelerator.com/hidden-treasures-by-jm-williams/ 

With short stories, I find it easiest to apply a three-act structure to the narrative. This makes it easier to plan out the story, even though I tend to be more of a “pantser” when it comes to short fiction. (If you don’t know, that means I write “from the seat of my pants” rather than plotting the whole thing out in advance.) I usually let the idea ferment in my mind for a couple weeks until the muse tells me it’s time to bottle, then I can get the whole thing written down in a weekend.  

The general concept of three act structure is: setup, conflict, climax. If you want to see this structure at its best, watch an episode of Star Trek from the 1990s, particularly Next Generation. The commercial breaks mark the transitions between the acts. The writers designed it this way. The opening scenes introduce the problem, usually with some big surprise coming before the title credits. Then you have 20ish minutes of drama and action, leading to another commercial break, which builds tension before the climax.  

Here’s are a guide on using three-act structure for short stories:  

Here’s another: https://jerrydunne.com/2014/01/31/the-3-act-plot-structure-for-the-short-story/

Some final tips. 

The shorter your story, the more efficient the prose needs to be. 

The shorter your story, the faster it needs to start. While you might have a couple paragraphs in a short story to get to the inciting incident, with flash or micro fiction, you usually need to begin at, or even after the start point of the action.  

For example, my story “The Performance of a Lifetime” begins after the heroes are already surrounded by goblins and fearing for their lives. You don’t need to know how they got in this position; there really isn’t time or space to think about that. All that matters is how they will escape. SPOILER ALERT! 

I cannot stress enough, only provide worldbuilding details if they are essential for the story. Short fiction is all about action and character. The reader wants to know what is happening now and how it is affecting the hero. Shoving in too many unnecessary details disrupts the flow and energy of the narrative. Trust your reader to notice the details after one or two mentions, and to fill in any gaps themselves. 

Hope this helps explain the basics of short fiction writing. Again, it is a very good thing for new authors to practice. It is much easier to learn how to write the short form well and move on to longer formats than the opposite.  

Now that you have some sense of what makes a good short fiction piece, why don’t you give it a try and send me your results? You can submit your work to us via this contact page. 

~JM Williams 

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5 thoughts on “On Writing: Short Fiction Writing, In Short

  1. Love the post, JM–very concise and informative. I find that I tend to be more plot driven on shorts, and by that I mean stories from about 1-3k. Longer stories tend to get more of a three-act treatment. I quite often pants my way through the shorter stuff, like my Olympus story. Sometimes it’s just fun to let it rip. But if I do that with anything longer, I end up with a hot mess, so I faithfully outline the longer stuff now, with all the three act turning points written out in advance. : )

    Liked by 1 person

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