The Synergy of the Short Story

Successful short stories should be greater than the sum of their parts.

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When you set out to tell a story, you may find you have the whole thing already in your head. You might have a starting point, or a scene you know you want to write but that occurs in the middle, or at the end. Perhaps you just have a character who you know will do something, but at the moment you are simply getting to know them. Or you have a voice—the narrator—which you will use to tell a story, but possibly not this one.

From that starting point—whatever it is—you will construct a plot, but whether you do this first or discover it as you go is irrelevant. That plot will be the backbone of the story—the base structure on which you build.

For a novel, your plot is going to consist of lots of things happening in an order which should be dictated by the things themselves. This happened because of that, and as a result it will lead to there. For a short story, however, you only need one thing.

Short stories are singular events. One thing occurs, one meeting of two trajectories. Most of the story is not on the page, but exists in unspoken space around it. A good short story—and by that I mean one that successfully does what it is supposed to do—will feel like part of something greater, but will exist in a way where we don’t need to see the rest of it. The short story itself is enough.

Characters need to feel like they are real, and have reached the opening sentence through a series of events, much like a novel. The story could well be an extract from an unwritten novel; a first or last chapter, or somewhere in the middle. As long as it stands alone, the rest of the novel can remain unwritten.

The synergy moment exists when two things collide and cause a greater effect than the sum of their parts. Two characters, each with different motivations, cross paths. If their wants (or needs) are at the expense of the others, then instant conflict will be created.

Short stories allow for an opportunity to experiment, to play. They are a sandbox within which you can make a mess, build something up, tear it down, and try again. You still process the story like a novel, but you only need one event, thing, collision, or moment of confluence for the story to exist.

If you have any kind of starting point, start. Test yourself. Explore new stories, patterns, characters, worlds. Don’t think about all the things that need to happen, just imagine one. Then work backwards and figure out how those characters got there. Once you’ve done that in your mind, you will understand them better. You will also be able to work out which part of their story you want to tell, and where you want to stop writing. You don’t need to open with a grand unravelling of world-building; neither do you need to tie every loose thread up into a neat conclusion. You can present a snapshot, an arc, or whatever part of it that will make a good story. What comes out will be greater than what you put in, and that is the wonder of the short story.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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