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How to Use the Short Form to Improve Longer Fiction

Recently, I submitted an entry into the Editor's Unleashed/Smashmouth Flash Fiction Contest. The contest made me think about how shorter works of fiction can be used as practice for creating or improving longer fiction.

I realize that there are some writers who only write poetry, short stories, or novels. And there are some that write in whatever form the story demands. But whether for practice or with an intent to sell, shorter works have certain advantages when trying to learn craft, and each form brings its own lessons.


Writing prompts can be used to warm up the engine--as nothing more than a reving of the psyche to get rid or all those personal doubts, editor voices, and critics that strive to control the unbridled passion of the artist.

Use prompts to break through writer's block, write without worry and just get the words on the page. Use prompts to get in gear by allowing the non-critical part of the mind go whereever it wants to take you. So what if its not possible for purple unicorns to dance on the rings of saturn because the gravitational pull of the moons at high tide would prevent said creatures from being to able to spin. Just Write.

Prompts have an ability to spark ideas, set the writer on fire, and get their fingers moving without the concious tyrant of perfection hovering over the writer. Just Write.

Don't worry about the muse. Don't even look for her. Ignore the critic, he doesn't exist, he'll be there when you need him. Just Write.

Poetry being one of the shortest forms of writing, gains the most impact by careful consideration of each word. The theme, message, or point of the poem requires efficient, powerful, and provacitive writing.

In fiction what may be coined as "purple prose", may be acceptable in a poem.

Poetry can teach a writer how to find beauty in the small and "insignificant" moments in each day and then how to take that beauty, that moment, and transfer it into something that is much larger and cosmic.

This can be a helpful device in showing the personal non verbal interaction between two characters, the relevance of a certain understated action, or the moods and emotions of a much loved character.

Flash Fiction lies between the brevity of poetry and the larger structure of short fiction. It does its best to focus on one intense moment of time like poetry, but can also benefit from the structure of short stories ( beginning, middle, and end).

This is a good form to learn how to strengthen a scene. Each story, whether it's as long as a series of novels or as small as flash--has to keep the reader interested. Every scene in a novel must contribute something to the whole. Every scene needs to hook the reader, while providing information about characters, plot, setting, or other relavant information. Flash fiction is a good way to focus on these elements, and learn how to create the most impact in a scene, how to balance them out, and how to enter and exit them effectively.

Use Flash to learn how to create the elements needed in a successful scene. Use flash to learn how to control mood, or viewpoint, or dialogue, or setting. Use flash to practice character to character interactions.

Compared to the other three short forms, short stories may seem as big as novels. Longer than flash, short stories give the author more time to develop characters, complicate plot, world-build, and work in a structure exactly like the ones used in novels.

Usually they have multiple scenes, which creates a longer story arc than flash fiction. Being larger in size, enables the short story to tell more of the tale with artistic expression. Everything expands, allowing more liberties for the author.

Use short stories to learn how to work with story structure--beginning, middle, end. Use short stories to learn how to connect one scene to another without losing reader interest. Use short stories to understand how to construct novels.

Each of these forms provides advantages that can make writing better in all the others. Practice in each to learn, grow, and improve as a writer.
* Short forms advantages ( general )

--do not take as long to write as a novel
--allow for completion of work and start of new project
--more projects equal more opportunity to change story elements ( voice, characters, plot, setting, tone/mood, etc )
--more projects equal more practice


--use to write spontaneously
--use to overcome writer's block
--use to overcome the critic, the editor, or the doubter


--use to maximize each word
--use to learn power of words
--use to improve imagery, emotion, tone, and mood


--use to understand the scene
--use to practice story elements on small scale
--use to practice story structure on small scale

*short story

--use to understand expanded story structure
--use as larger canvas for story elements
--use to connect scenes without loss of reader interest

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Enjoyed this!

Not that this is any great revelation, but I read recently that the advantage of writing short stories when starting out is it helps you learn form and storytelling by making your mistakes quicker. Novels take longer to writer, so the learning process can be slower.

I write at all lengths. Flash, short stories, novels. I write a lot of what you'd call short-shorts, too. Longer than flash but not really a short story. I write a lot of stories in the 1500 to 2500 word range. In fact, the average length of my short fiction is 2300 words, last I checked. :-)


And I definitely agree about the short form aiding in making mistakes quicker.

I learned of flash fiction a few years ago. I had heard of short-shorts, but the idea of a 1,000 word story was new to me. I basically thought in terms of short stories and novels.

I was part of an online community where we created a shared world and most of the stuff we wrote were really short pieces. What I gained from that was writing, even a little, makes you want to write more. And writing even a little starts to stir up stories and plots and characters in my head.

It's almost self sustaining once it builds up momentum.

That little bit is far better than sitting around waiting for a muse.

A few years back I used to like to wake up on a Saturday morning and write a flash piece around 1000 words. I'd do it in two or three hours in the morning and then spend the rest of the day tweaking it. Got a few of them published from those days. Today, they've expanded a bit. I wrote one that's 1900 words in a 1 1/2 hours the other evening and cleaned it up on a couple of passes. Don't know if they're any better, but they are getting quicker. I guess I've learned how to get where I need to go quicker. So flash is good for that. *g*

I guess I've learned how to get where I need to go quicker. So flash is good for that. *g*

--I don't remember who said it, but I remember someone saying that the more they wrote the better their first drafts were.

I think what happens is you eventually get to the point after sweating over every little word that your mind begins to self-edit in a way that is 100% natural and doesn't slow you down.

Sort of like learning how to walk. At first you pick yourself up and fall a lot. Then you understand the balance of it and start taking your first steps. Then you learn to walk. And eventually run.

But after that first brief encounter with being unbalanced, you gain a sense of yourself, and then you don't have to think about the mechanics of walking. You just do it.

I agree 100%, but I would also add that short fiction is a great way to help develop an 'I really am a writer' mentality.

Back in January, I started an online short-story writing group for some of the people in the Monmouth Writers - talk about the blind leading the blind :). Although I prefer to write full length fiction (as of 1/1/09 I'd written four and three-quarter novel drafts and only four short stories), I figured I could learn a lot from other folks on the net and help myself and the rest of my writing group along the way.

To cut a long story short, we have an ongoing monthly goal to write a drabble (100 word story) in the first half of each month, and submit it for publication to a paying market that same month.

Sad to say, none of us have sold anything yet :(, though my first attempt drabble was lucky enough to win a flash fiction contest.

Having said that, at this stage, I feel it's not so much about writing a great story - although of course that's our goal - as it is about getting used to writing stories and establishing the routine of pitching our work to potential buyers.

Edited at 2009-06-01 04:06 pm (UTC)

I agree 100%, but I would also add that short fiction is a great way to help develop an 'I really am a writer' mentality.

--Good point. Attitude is an important part of whatever you do. If you beleive in yourself, you will be able to handle to make improvements that much faster.

When I first submitted a story, I only submitted one. This was before the internet was as huge as it is now. I paperclipped a postcard to the submission and waited...waited...waited to get it back. I should have been working on the next story.

Then I went on one of my don't write anything for months/years benders.

I'm different now though.

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