The Struggle of Writing Short Stories

I know I said I’d write more discussion posts, but I haven’t thought of any great bookish topics, so I’m writing one about writing instead. Hope you enjoy it anyway (I bet some of you can relate to it)!

I love the idea of writing short stories. Condensing storytelling into a few thousand words, getting the creative juices going for a few hours and actually finishing something—it strikes me as the epitome of writing. Like, if I can successfully write a short story, I will have transitioned into a new phase of being a writer, I will have “leveled up” in some cosmic way.

I don’t know, that’s just me.

The problem is, short stories are hard. (That’s probably not surprising to most of you, but it always seems to surprise me when I sit down to write one and nothing magically comes together.) I seem to face three specific roadblocks:

1. What the heck should I write?

Probably the most obvious problem. There have been countless times when I sit down to write a short story and…nothing comes. I’ll even start with inspiration—anything from my countless Pinterest boards or the random writing challenges floating around—but no plot comes out of it. I have an easy time coming up with characters and worlds and funny one-liners, but stringing all of those elements together with the elusive device of PLOT???

Nope. That doesn’t happen often.

2. Well, that’s just an exposition with a dash of plot for flavor

So here’s what happens: I start with a picture or a prompt or whatever that sets off a lightbulb in my mind and the words start pouring out. After a little while, I have a few pages written and I’m feeling pretty darn proud of myself.

Until I go back and reread it, when I realize that everything I wrote is a great set-up for a larger story (read: novel), but it isn’t close to being a short story. Sometimes, I’m fine with this (my current WIP started off as a random idea for a short story), but now that I’m fully committed to my WIP and I just want to write short stories to blow off steam, this gets annoying.

Being a pantser definitely doesn’t help this situation. I figure out the story I want to write by randomly exploring characters and scenes. That works well (if slowly) for longer projects, but not for short stories. I can’t tell you how many Word documents I have saved on my computer that are three pages of abandoned exposition.

3. And that’s just a lot of dialogue…

Sometimes I over-correct and ignore exposition completely. The stories that result from this are 80% dialogue, with the sparsest descriptions added to give the story context.

I actually love these stories, though they feel like scenes instead of stories (less plot, more snapshot). And though I love writing snappy dialogue back-and-forths, I can never shake the feeling that these stories are missing the backbone that is, you know, scenery and all that.

Why am I telling you this?

Well, there’s the hope that some of you have struggled with these same problems and have useful hints to help get over it. There’s also the hope that some of you have been trying to write short stories and not knowing why they aren’t working, and you’ll read this post and go “ah-HAH, that’s my problem!”

Also, I’m curious: what types of short stories do you like to read? Are these actually problems, or am I just imagining them?

But really, I’m sharing this with you because writing it down helps me focus on what I’ll do better next time. and putting it online forces me to do better next time. I really want to write short stories, mainly because it means that I can share more of my writing with you guys, and part of that process is sharing why I haven’t been sharing short stories with you guys as much as I would like.

So…what are you thoughts? Relatable? A mountain out of a molehill? Do you have any tricks for conquering the monster that is short stories?