In my scant free time this week, I’ve been trying my hand at writing a short story as a promotional teaser to The Beggar’s Opera, a prequel that if all goes well, will end up on e-readers before the book is published.
I’ve discovered that a short story is surprisingly hard to write, considering I already know my setting and my characters.
I’m find the prequel difficult because it’s backstory to the main book, but can’t contain any spoilers. The characters have to be introduced but not in the same detail as in the longer novel for reasons of length and repetition. I don’t want someone reading the short story and then finding the book boring because I’ve given away too much of The Beggar’s Opera‘s uniqueness.
After writing two 300+ page books (and being two-thirds of the way through the third), I thought a 10,000 word story would be easy to knock off. But it isn’t. You still need a tight plot but it has to be condensed into far fewer pages. There’s not much room for twists and turns, but you still need them. Characters have to be developed deftly: voice is everything.
In my short story, tentatively titled “Angel’s Share,” I’m finding I have to take the same approach as I did in the books. Someone dies. Ramirez is assigned to investigate. There are problems, clues (but not too many) and a surprise at the end. (It’s the ending that’s got me a little stuck: I know where I want to go, but getting there is proving a bit of a slog.)
Here are some tips from short story writer Amanda Lohrey, who says the short story should be unpredictable and that its ending should feel surprising but somehow inevitable.
I think what she means by unpredictability is that tension we strive for: leaving the reader curious, engaged, motivated to keep reading. As for the inevitability of an ending, in a mystery (novel or short story), I think that simply means that the clues, the logic, and internal consistency of the story takes a reader to the place where it was headed all the time — but so skilfully that the reader didn’t see it. I’ve experienced that in the best mysteries: that sense of forehead smacking, “gahh — I should have figured that out! The clues were all there!”
Any short story writers out there? Tell me, how do you do it? What are your tips in this challenging format?