Short Story Muscles

While discussing writing with a good—and excellent—writing friend, I felt inspired to write shorts again. The thing is, I had no ideas.

That said, I remembered something a writer wrote about writing some years ago, paraphrased as “writing is like a muscle. If you don’t exercise it, the muscle atrophies.” It was both painful and scary to think I would never get that muscle working again. And when I started thinking about the short story, typically 2000 to 10,000 words, I realized I had no idea of what I would write about.

There was a time when I churned out short stories. After attending Clarion West, I prolifically burned through dozens, sent them all out to the best markets at the time, saving rejection letters in a folder, reading over and over the handful of personal remarks and the coveted words: ”Send me another when you have one.”

I sold a few. Very few.

A decade went by before the self-publishing swell rolled in. Then I hustled more stories to paper, know they would be published and eager to see their cover art. I sold a few more—trying to get a broader market by targeting anthologies and selling another handful.

Then, life intervened; I barely tensed my writing muscle every day by pounding out a few words in novels. Short stories lounged in the back of the gym, thumbing through magazines. I blistered through flash fiction as a member of a small but loyal writing group that required assignments, but the stamina to blaze through an entire story failed me.

Short stories finally left the building.

But after talking with Salinda, whose writing I so admire, who is selling to anthologies, whose short stories I am delighted to critique, I thought what the hell am I doing?

Short story writing is not easy. Yes, they’re short, and the fastest writers could spin a couple 3000 worders out each day—and more, but they require a certain finesse. There is a formula, I am sorry to say, that readers look for, that punch at the end. The sigh of relief or the squeezing of the heart. Grief, joy, requited love. The short story has to support that ending. And often the ending won’t turn out to be what the writer intended.

I’ve learned that the characters will end the story. The characters are the most important element, in my view. Sure, it helps to remember the lessons of workshops. Motivation. Conflict. Ask yourself—what does the main character or characters want that they can’t have? What do they have that they are desperate to jettison? What will they pay or trade for the thing they crave or despise or fear or imagine? Or love?

This description might sound rather fraught, but it’s required. This short story element only differs by degree. A woman’s professional and personal life is failing, but a run-in with her mother’s miniature dragons turns everything around. A nurse is so traumatized by the war-wounded she cares for that she concocts a fantasy for escape. A caregiver in an assisted living home uncovers a covert conspiracy among the patients seeking to protect themselves from the negligent care. A woman builds a robot of her dead boyfriend.

There doesn’t have to be a battle or a murder, or a Hollywood wedding or a crowning. It’s best to keep the time frame short—a few days, a few hours, or a longer break if there is an ironic coda to add. It’s best to keep the character number small. One, two, four, or maybe five.

Settings can be anything, but it’s also best to keep description of a minimum—efficient, cogent, relevant. Even in fantasy and science fiction, the world where the characters must act can be described through their actions and thoughts.

Somehow in the last few weeks, my short story muscle did a few stretches. Now it’s lifting weights and doing lunges. Two new ideas in one week! It helped me a great deal to reread some of my older work for a collection I just put together. The simple themes of personal desire, love, loss and striving are walking straight into the gym. They’re not athletes or soldiers or even in outer space; they are strong in small ways, in a suburb, or on a train. As long as there is a character in conflict, and a resolution, a short story can happen. The resolution doesn’t have to be joyful, everything wrapped up in glossy paper. The resolution can be horrifically disappointing. Or the story can end with a question with no answer.

The enjoyment of the story is spending time in the character’s world. And for the writer, it’s remembering to do a few pushups every day to kept the muscle toned.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


Short Story Muscles — 2 Comments

  1. Thank you. I needed that. I owe two short stories to anthologies. The ideas are there, the muscle to write them isn’t. I keep telling myself I’ll do them when I finish the WIP. But now I’m into the final sequence of the WIP and I’m stalling finishing it because those 2 shorts are looming in the wings, needing a fine workout before they can be shown.

    Telling myself NO MORE STALLING.

  2. Absolutely. Well put.

    There is so much more to a short story than meets the eye and they’re not “easier” than novels – if anything, the opposite. I don’t ever set out to write a “short story” as such – it is the pieces that are naturally formed at that length that end up there, they aren’t “practice” work for a novel or something I edit down into that shape. The Short Story muscles need their own set of “exercises” to keep fit. Thank you for the reminder.