Yes, yes, I know… When it comes to writing, many people aren’t impressed with anything less than a full-length book. However, even though I’ve got a couple of published novels under my belt, I still enjoy hammering out short fiction. If you’re a fiction writer who has never attempted a short tale, I encourage you to try your skill at crafting some short stories, which I consider the SWAT teams of literature.
S.W.A.T. stands for “Special Weapons and Tactics.” It refers to highly trained paramilitary tactical units engaged in law enforcement that falls outside the routine duties of police officers. A SWAT team may face heavily armed criminals, or barricaded suspects, or they might rescue hostages. But whatever the situation, these units apply special tactics to get in, to do their job effectively, and then extract again. By analogy (but minus the classy uniform), that description parallels the task facing a short-story writer.
The ticking clock. In a hostage situation, the bad guy might give only so many days, hours, or minutes in which his demands must be met. The same is true of a short story. Before launching your short-fiction plot, be sure to check the word limits of the magazine or journal to which you plan to submit (and don’t you dare write a story without planning where you’ll submit it, or you practically doom your work). One publisher for whom I’ve written quite a few short fiction pieces sets a 1,800-word limit. I know this before I sit down to write. Inevitably, however, my first draft misses that mark and lands at 2,100 or 2,200 words. So I slice, dice, and tighten until I hit my bull’s eye. This is excellent practice at precise writing, in which verbal fluff is verboten. It’s also fun—and potentially profitable. For stories of 1,800 words, I’ve captured checks of $350 to $400.
Stay on target. A SWAT sniper who knows he might have to take out the dangerous desperado also understands that his duty leaves no room for admiring pretty, cauliflower clouds, the blooming daffodils, or a myriad other details. Likewise, the short story writer must focus on the plot at hand. This type of literature offers scant opportunity for wandering thoughts or emphasis on trivial details.
Do the job; then exit. Sure, novels provide ample room for a climax, followed by a leisurely dénouement. But in short stories—as in a hostage situation—you need to perform the job and then get out. End with a decisive bang if that’s what’s best, but realize up front there’s no time for extensive character development or other fiddling around.
An impressive number of famous writers contributed really dynamite short stories to literature. O. Henry, Jack London, Isaac Asimov, Anton Chekov, Ray Bradbury, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bret Harte, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Robert Heinlein, Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, Washington Irving, and a host of others have enriched our imaginations with short, well-targeted tales.
How about you? Got what it takes to write short?