The Shortest Story

It seems that if we all had the choice, we would choose to read the shortest story possible. We’re lazy and we’re losing our attention span on words. Fewer are better. If that short story has the same impact on us as the longest novel ever (Atlas Shrugged felt like it; I skipped a 100-page speech) then wouldn’t we always choose it?

I had a conversation with a friend last night who told me she only reads short stories. She reads one novel in the summer. I thought this odd, that one could like reading but simply ignore what I like to read. As I am easily influenced by others’ reading choices (the mark of all good readers, who want to be reading everything), I immediately started naming the merits of the short story in the face of the novel.


(Heminway, photo from

Short stories are never boring. They don’t have time to be. Short stories are always finishable in one sitting, giving them a mood that is influenced by the mood you come at them with. Short stories must have strong characters, and you must know only key things about that character. You are given room, then, to imagine and create from what is given, and the text must give you hints in order for you to do so. Most importantly, short stories are about moments. The more striking the moment, the more the story will stay with you. It’s hard for a novel to have a striking moment without it being cheesy, without it seeming too climactic and overbearing for the rest of the story. The novel is a story about time; the short story is about a moment.

When I read I want details. I want to feel them, not live through them. I’m living already – I want to feel.

Short Story

I need to write a short story. Months ago I committed to writing one short story a week, and sending out one short story a month to a contest or a magazine. I have so far written one short story (in my lifetime). I’m sure I have other stories that are short, but I have but once set out to write a short story and written one.

In fact, I always thought I hated short stories. They weren’t worth my time because they were either confusing or pointless and couldn’t I have just been reading a novel instead? A novel, that’s something beautiful. I don’t remember where I read this, but someone wrote something to the effect of “It’s not hard to write sentences, and books are made of sentences, so if you’re going to write a sentence, why not just write Moby Dick?” Of course, they said it better. I think I read it in a book. They were already writing that sentence as a part of a full-length book.

Then something happened (I guess I read a few short stories) and I got it. I understood why people wrote them. A short story is a moment. A novel is weeks.

(this is the library I’m about to mention –

taken from

There is a quote on the glass wall of the library near where I do yoga: “A short story is what you see when you look out the window.” Okay. I look out windows. A short story is maybe the kind of thing you can write when all day long you are sitting in a class and all evening long you are doing homework from that class. It is the thing you can do in one of your breaks. Right?

I don’t know. I’ve only written one.

I often come up with plans such as the one I already mentioned: give myself a quota, some sort of routine. If a short story is a moment in time, it should take but a moment in time to write. So why don’t I start?

My biggest issue with short stories, and the reason why I still feel the tinge of distaste I used to have for them, is that they are based on a plot. A novel is based on a character. Anytime I try to come up with a plot for a short story, I feel as though I am a child who was asked to create a comic strip for class. This happened. Then this happened. This image then that one. It’s so dull. It sounds horrible to write. I can’t make myself do it.

So I think I need to change things up. I need to start with moments. I need to rifle quickly  through journals and take eyes-half-open glances at things I’ve written in there – quotes I like from books, things I noticed that day, dreams – and turn those moments I catch into stories. I need to write from a moment, not a child’s plot.

So there!

A Short Story in Ten Short Steps

Here’s how I wrote my first short story:

1. I came up with five story ideas by looking at various objects around the room. One was a photo of a group of bridesmaids at a wedding (I was one of them). I thought, perfect. A bridesmaid wrecks a wedding. What a story.

2. I put the list of five topics – all engaging, all suspenseful – aside for a day.

3. I did a version of eenie-meenie (in which I use letters from a word I come up with to pick an answer, like p-a-r-r-o-t) to choose which topic I would actually write about. The first topic about a bridesmaid got chosen. I reread all five topics. All were now ridiculous, trivial. But now I had a challenge: make this shit into a story.

4. I wrote down five questions to ask myself to figure out who my main character was. I made up a name of someone I thought sounded like a bridesmaid (though I’ve been a bridesmaid, and it’s not my name).

  • What is Kylie’s biggest fear?
  • What does Kylie have to lose?
  • What does Kylie have to gain?
  • Whose support does Kylie need?
  • Why does Kylie do what she does?

(from I think I wrote a story about the one behind the one on the left, the only bridesmaid you can’t see.)

5. I only answered one of these questions because I tried to do it with my left hand (my new friend ElJean, an excellent writer, taught me this exercise). The left hand is supposed to be your more honest hand. It took so long to scrawl down the answer that I was overcome with energy and momentum to tell Kylie’s story legibly.

6. I changed pages and wrote down in sequence a series of statements about Kylie, about the other characters in the story, about what Kylie does and what the story does.

7. I put that aside because I had to go eat or something. I was excited. I put flashcards into my notebook at that page as though I was later going to make scenes on the flashcards (something I learned last week and subsequently blogged about three days ago).

8. I went out for a drink with a friend and came home with a beer and a story in my head. I hadn’t thought an ounce about Kylie but I had let the story sit for a day and think itself up. I opened my computer and a Word document from yesterday pre-emptively titled “Bridesmaid” (it sits next to the Word document from the previous day pre-emptively and confidently titled “Vancouver Writers Festival Short Story Contest”  – okay, it’s titled VAnWRContest).

9. I wrote the goddamned story! All of it! It’s about 1,600 words and I think it’s beautiful and exciting and moving and has touched upon something all people or all bridesmaids have felt.

10. The tenth step hasn’t happened yet. It will be to read it. I plan to wait a few days. If anything of this list holds up, it’s that stories/ideas get stronger when you let them sit, but they also appear more stupid. I hope to return to the story with a look of disdain on my face but also a really good story somewhere in my left hand.