Thursday, October 27, 2005

Essentials of a Short Story

The Essentials of a Short Story
Edgar Allen Poe - 1837
Raped from a critique of Hawthorn’s Twice Told Tales
Edgar Allen Poe, celebrated as one of the finest short fiction writers of all time, was also a literary critic. These are bits of his wisdom on writing short stories, gleaned from one of his critiques.

“The true critic will but demand that that the (story’s) design intended be accomplished, to the fullest extent, by the means most advantageously applicable…" -- Poe

Poe’s Prerequisites -- in a Nutshell:
To deliver fullest satisfaction, a short story should be structured:
1) To be perused in an hour.
2) Conceived with deliberate care toward a single effect.
3) With words restrained in style and tone.
4) All done that should be done, with nothing done which should not be.

Poe’s Prerequisites -- in DETAIL
A short story should be structured:
1) To be perused in an hour.
“Were we bidden to say how the highest genius (of the short story) could be most advantageously employed for the best display of (the short story’s) own powers, we should answer, without hesitation- in the composition of a rhymed poem, not to exceed in length what might be perused in an hour.” -- Poe


How much can YOU read in an hour (or two)? A short story should be no longer.

According to TODAY'S publishing standards, this means no more than 15k, (15,000 words) or 60 NY publishing formatted pages. (60 pages at 12 point courier font, on an 8.5” by 11” page with 1” margins, are counted as 250 words per page, regardless of actual word count.) 20k, or 80 NY publishing formatted pages, is commonly considered a Novella.

Keep in mind, EVERY publisher has their own requirements. For example, Magazine publishers tend to look for 5k stories, (5,000 words) or 20 NY publishing formatted pages.

ALWAYS read the SUBMISSION GUIDELINES for each individual Publisher -- before submitting anything!

2) Conceived with deliberate care toward a single effect.
“A skillful literary artist has a constructed tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents- he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tends not to the out-bringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step.” -- Poe

Plot the damned thing out, every character, every incident, with a single Purpose in mind, a Premise.

You DON'T think up an event, and then decide what you're going to do with it -- you consider what you want to Say First -- and then craft your characters and incidents to illustrate the point you are trying to make.

Why are YOU saying with your story?
What are you trying to Show?

• The reality of Love? – Romeo & Juliet
• The pain of Jealousy? - Othello
• The results of Revenge? - Hamlet
• The path of Ambition? - Julius Caesar

What kinds of Characters and Events will it take to make your point? What needs to happen to illustrate what you want to say?

PLOTTING is Good for you!
Plotting is essential in all forms of fiction for cohesion. Plotting ensures that your cool idea has all the important bits needed to be a full-blown STORY, such as: a beginning, a middle, and an end. It keeps you from missing something vital – or putting something in that does not belong.

Side-tracked by a really cool subplot?
Does it fit with the theme of what you are trying to accomplish?
  • If it does – GREAT! Is there enough room for it? (What kind of word-count limit are you dealing with?)
  • If it doesn’t – GREAT! You have the makings of a whole new story! (Chop it out and make a whole new document file just for it.)
However, Plotting does NOT have to be a chapter by chapter outline; it can be a short list of just the important bits:

A Plot Arc
(for an Erotic Romance)
Early trouble, revealing the character's talents and setting
Boy meets Girl, Adversary meets Proponent…

Rising Action
Increasing tension - crisis after crisis
One succeeds in pissing off the other.

Climax / Reversal
Point of highest tension & the story's turning point
One succeeds in seducing the other & something happens to mess everything up.

Falling Action
All plot threads unravel leaving only one solution
Motives & all other angsty secrets are uncovered, revealing the REAL problem.

Final choice, ending in hope or ruin
Love is declared, choices are made, sides are chosen; the final battle is enjoined

Boy & Girl’s happily ever after…

3) Using words restrained in style and tone.
“The author who aims at the purely beautiful in a prose tale is laboring at great disadvantage. For Beauty can be better treated in the poem. Not so with terror, or passion, or horror, or a multitude of such other points.” -- Poe


Hunks of sweeping, emotionally blissed-out, text is generally SKIPPED in favor of: “What happens next?” The only place for fancy words is in Description.

Why? Because in this day and age, the average book-store browsing Reader does not have the patience to read fancy prose. Think I'm kidding? In this very article, how many of you have been skipping over Poe's literary-heavy quotes to get to the Translations? (Retorical Question! You are not expected to answer!)

Seriously, no matter what genre you write, the average Buying Reader reads with a TV-Watcher's attention span (about the same as a 12-year old) because the average Buying Reader of every genre, grew up watching TV.

THINK: How long is a TV program? Sit-coms are half an hour. Actual programs are an hour - two at the most. Your story has to fit into a TV-program slot -- and compete with the next program they plan to watch.

As a rule, only the college-heavy teacher-types read literary prose for pleasure. Everybody else (the BUYING public) reads pulp fiction.

DESCRIPTION is a MUST in Modern Fiction!
Our modern-day, TV-addict readers are trained (by their TV-watching,) to be VISUALLY stimulated. These readers PICTURE their stories as they read them, and expect enough description to be able to make those mind-pictures crystal clear – AND emotionally visceral.

They not only want to SEE it – they want to FEEL it too -- but they don't have much of an attention span, so every word must count!

Description should be trimmed down to:
Distinct nouns rather than Vague nouns: Toyota instead of car.
1 Adjective per Distinct Noun The red Toyota
2 Adjectives per Sensation – smell, taste, texture, sound, view – “I saw a dilapidated red Toyota.”
2 Adjectives per Emotion – anger, lust, love, joy, misery – “The bitter ache in my weary heart…”

4) All done that should be done
--With nothing done which should not be.
“In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.” --Poe

Give every character, object, event…, a Purpose -- a Reason to be there.

Don’t just throw something in the story for decoration, like a sex scene, or a piano in the living room. Make that piano, or that love affair, IMPORTANT to the story. Make something happen Because they had sex. Make something happen Because they played the piano.

This is more commonly known as:
The “Gun on the Mantelpiece” rule of Fiction
“If a gun is shown on the mantelpiece in Chapter One, it better go off by Chapter Three – and there had better be a damned good reason for that gun to go off.”

Applied to Erotic Romance:
“If a Kiss is shown in the living room in Chapter One, Sex better happen by Chapter Three – and there had better be a damned good reason for that Sex to happen.”

The trick to knowing what to include in any story – is whether or not you intend to actively USE it. If the character trait or object does not matter to the plot – skip it. If it doesn’t Actively MOVE the Plot, (even a teeny bit,) you don’t need to notice it.

The shorter the story the LESS room you have to work with, so the only details that you need are what actually Changes the plot. Even with character details. If that detail has no bearing on the plot, you don’t need it.

In Conclusion…

Poe’s Prerequisites – Translated
A short story should be Plotted:
1) No more than 15,000 words.
2) With a Beginning, Middle, End, and a Point in mind.
3) For a TV-watcher’s visually oriented (12-year old) attention span.
4) Using only what is needed to make your point, and complete the story.

Morgan Hawke

In Memoriam:

Aevum brevis, ars aeternum…


  1. Interesting that Poe seemed to reject the idea of, say, 3k short story. Because some of his own short stories are Shorter than 5,000 words :-)))

  2. Poe said: "...not to EXCEED in length what might be perused in an hour.”

    As far as I can tell, this means Poe felt that a short story could be ANY length as long as it took No MORE than an hour to read.


  3. What prefect timing! I needed this!

    Thank you.

  4. "2) Conceived with deliberate care toward a single effect."

    I so agree. Sometimes you read a short story and wonder what the point was.

    I'm also interested in your opinion regarding the "TV-addicted audience" and full length novels. Some say shorter chapters is a key--so that the reader would be able to read a chapter in between errands.

    PS the art is lovely :)

  5. Happy Belated Bday, honey! I didn't forget but was having problems with sending you a card and hardly home last week. Hope to see you soon. Miss ya! Hugs.

  6. Hi Morgan,

    My name is Peter Klein. I have a website where I publish erotic fiction, These are stories written to go with a set of pictures.

    I belong to the ERA-Writers list. I saw your post on there where you go on a rant about how to write kink. It's great. May I use it on my site? I want to make it part of my Authors' Guidelines.

    I put it up on my site yesterday. Here's a link to my Guidelines. You can see where I give you credit. I hope it's okay, but of course, I'll remove it if it is not okay.

    You might want to look around my site while you are there. I'd be glad to get any feedback you would care to give. And one last point: you are invited to register and write a story for me. We pay $50.

    Thank you so much.

    Peter Klein

  7. Dear Mr. Klein,
    - I'm flattered that you liked one of my ERWA letters enough to quote it on your site. As long as I’m credited, you are welcome to borrow any piece of writing advice I post.

    BTW - the letter you're quoting was expanded into THIS article on my blog:

    To BE Erotic Fiction - SEX has to drive the Plot.

    Thank you for the invite to write for your site! Unfortunately, I’m booked solid. (I have three book publishers and they’re really demanding.)

    Good luck on your new story site!

    Morgan Hawke