Why You Should Write Short Stories

Last week, I wrote about the 1950 film All About Eve and how much I love the way its ending mirrors its beginning. The screenplay for All About Eve is based on a short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” written by American author Mary Orr (1910-2006).

In fact, a lot of great films are based on short stories: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was based on James Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same name; 3:10 to Yuma was based on Elmore Leonard’s 1953 short story “Three-Ten to Yuma”; Smooth Talk was based on Joyce Carol Oates’s 1966 short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”; Rear Window was based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story “It Had to Be Murder”; Brokeback Mountain was based on Annie Proulx’s 1977 short story of the same name; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 short story of the same name; and Everything Must Go was based on Raymond Carver’s 1981 short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”

Several of Stephen King’s short stories and novellas have been adapted to feature-length film, including The Shawshank Redemption, based on the short story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” and The Mist, based on the short story of the same name.

Short stories are often highly adaptive to film. I think it’s because they are tight and focused, often addressing universal themes in an effective and impactful way. That’s a testament to the power of the short story, but that’s a fringe benefit. It’s not the reason I think you should write them.

I think you should try your hand at writing short stories because writing short stories will give you things writing a novel can’t.

One of my writing professors, Mary Yukari Waters, told me she approved of my decision to focus solely on short stories during my MFA. She told me that doing so would give me so many more opportunities to practice writing beginnings, middles, and endings. With a novel, you may spend years rewriting and revising the same beginning, middle, and end. Of course, that’s practice, too, but that’s revision practice, which is another story entirely.

Another of my writing professors, Jill Alexander Essbaum, encouraged me to set a timer and write the beginning of a new short story every morning as a writing exercise. I did so for months and months, and I return to the practice regularly. Jill’s exercise gives me confidence that I can come up with ideas—I can come up with the germ of an idea for a short story within a few minutes, anytime I want to. I’m no longer afraid that I can’t come up with ideas or that I will run out of ideas. Of course, many of the story beginnings I write never become a full story, and yes, some of them are dreadful. But that isn’t the point. And some of them are not dreadful and become something more. In fact, one of the story beginnings I wrote during Jill’s exercise eventually became the ending of my award-winning short story “Trees.”

You learn by writing short stories. Keep writing short stories. The money’s in novels, but writing short stories keeps your writing lean and pointed. —Larry Niven

A friend shared an essay with me once. I’ve tried to find it, but haven’t been able to so far. But I recall it discussed the differences between writing a novel and a short story, using sea vessels as a metaphor. Writing a novel has a different set of challenges, and the author’s essay likened it to building a ship–a large, weighty vessel with strong, durable connective parts, tightly sealed. The author likened writing a short story to building a sailboat–a light, sleek, compact, highly manueverable thing.

Another professor, Rob Roberge, compared novels to short stories using a funnel as an example. A novel, he explained, is like a right-side-up funnel–it opens up big at the beginning, and narrows down at the end. A short story, he said, is like an upside-down funnel, starting narrow and opening up at the ending. I think about this a lot, and someday I’m going to write about my interpretation of what this means.

But for now, what I want to say is that writing a short story is a different skill than writing a novel, and it’s a skill that I believe will help you tighten your writing, as Larry Niven said in the quote above.  If you let it, writing short stories will give you so much more, too.