Sunday, August 7, 2011

Writing Advice 8 — Mini Stories

I have a friend who exclusively writes short stories. I tried to convince him to try a novel, but he insisted he wasn’t comfortable with that form. I told him that writing a novel was just putting together a series of short stories. He didn’t accept that. I think the issue was in the definition of “short story.” Most short story writers view it as a medium very different from a novel. For example a short story begins at the height of the event and captures just that, so a novel can’t be the culmination of what would be a series of climaxes, and in this respect I agree, but that’s not what I meant. So, in order to avoid this confusion, I’ve played a game of semantics and have redefined the statement as: A novel is a series of Mini Stories that comprise a larger one.

So what is a mini story and how does it differ from a short story?

A mini story has a beginning middle and an end, but it doesn’t have to be the apex. There doesn’t have to be a character arc, twist, or reveal. It merely needs to put forth an idea, discuss it and then resolve it. Just about everyone of my blog posts are mini stories, but I wouldn’t call them short stories. They begin with a premise, discuss it, and often conclude with a new way of looking at the beginning thus creating a circular concept that concludes as a whole idea.

In the post Genesis I describe how I started writing. The post begins when I found a neighbor’s typewriter and typed the line: “It was a dark and stormy night.” I was fascinated by this tool and what it allowed me to do. I wasn’t allowed to play any further with the typewriter and this aspect of the post is abandoned as I go on to talk about how I learned to like stories through reading The Lord of the Rings, but when I was done with it I wanted more and could not find anything else like it. I was depressed. Now up to this point this “story” is still open-ended. It is what I call a linear plot, meaning that it starts at point A and moves straight to point B. It is a mere series of events, not a story. What made it a story is that in the end, my boredom led me to complain to my mother and she taught me a lesson by insisting I clean out the front closet. There I found my older sister’s old typewriter, and the post concludes with the line: “I never finished cleaning out the closet.” In this way, the series of events turn back on themselves and connects to the start forming a circle and a story. The end explains the beginning and gives reason for the middle.

Not everyone sees a story in this way. I have read many short stories, and seen a few movies, that are just a series of events that start at a random point and end at a random point. Personally I don’t recognize these as stories. Stories for me must have a point. If you are at dinner and say, “Oh, let me tell you what happened at work today.” Those with you expect they are about to hear something with a point, rather than say… “I got up, got in the car, drove to work, did stuff, and then came home.” If you did, I think those at the table might look at you puzzled and even ask, “Yeah, so?” Stories need a setup and a payoff to hold them together as a unit, otherwise they are just random events told in order.

How does this apply to writing a novel?

Let’s look at The Lord of the Rings again. The story is of Frodo taking the ring to Mordor, but it is made up of dozens of smaller stories. The first being the Long Expected Party, a small story of the coming birthday bash for Bilbo. There is mystery, foreshadowing and then the big reveal and even a nice little epilogue where Gandalf catches him before he sneaks out of Hobbiton. Then  there is the story where Gandalf tells the history of the One Ring, and the tale of Frodo’s trip to Cricket Hollow. The larger novel is broken down into much smaller mini stories. In this way, chapters can be small stories inside a novel. What this does is provide the reader with a constant diet of interest. Most readers can’t consume a whole novel in an hour. As such, the reward or even the anticipation of a reward is too far off to be gripping. What a reader wants is to be consistently rewarded as they read along. This means the characters need to encounter challenges and mysteries as they move through the story. But this isn’t enough. The characters need to figure some of them out and overcome each until they arrive at the big endgame climax. Imagine how Tolkien’s epic might have read if it really was just Frodo plodding to Mordor without any little plots in between.

Mini stories on this scale challenge the characters and form the basis of altering their perceptions of themselves and the world. It also does the same to the reader. Presenting this information in story form, makes it entertaining to experience.

But this is not all. Mini stories can be scaled even further. If chapters are mini stories within a novel, a few pages, or even a single paragraph can be a mini story inside a chapter. Sometimes even a single sentence can contain a story when back-loaded to provide for a powerful reveal.

“He collapsed thinking he had failed, thinking he was lost, but as he lifted his head there it was, on the hill, beneath the tree—home.”

This sentence shows a mini trip from despair to victory. It is a little story unto itself. So just as matter is made up of molecules and those of atoms and so on, books—good, strong, motivating novels—are made up of stories within stories, within stories. Ideas that loop back upon themselves making clever patterns, resolving questions, supporting ideas. These are the stuff of novels.

Mini stories can also be, and most often are, scenes. A scene is action that takes place in a single location. And just as in a film, it’s bordered on either end by a cut to another scene, or in a play, by a dimming of the lights, and or, a change in the backdrop.

One of the most common errors I find is the lack of editing, and what I am talking about here is the cutting of one scene and jumping to the next relevant event. All too often a writer doesn’t understand this concept and just writes everything that happens. If a story is of a person discovering they are out of milk and getting more, an inexperienced writer might write of them opening the fridge finding the milk missing, getting their coat and keys, walking to the car, getting in, backing out of the drive entering traffic, going down two lights, entering the store parking lot, parking, walking into the store, getting the milk, paying for it, getting back in the car, driving the same two lights, entering their drive, exiting the car, entering the house, putting the new milk in the fridge. The problem with this is that it’s boring and unnecessary. The same could be done by writing how the character discovers they are out of milk and grabbing their coat and keys. Then the scene would cut to a new one at the store where he buys a new gallon. The scene cuts again and he is home at the table drinking a glass of the newly purchased milk. If nothing of significance occurs between important event A and important even B, skip it.

Scene writing allows you to skip the dull parts and keep the reader locked in the juicy stuff. It also allows you the freedom to set a tone and style to the story. Of course knowing when and how often to jump scenes is an art in itself as it defines a good deal of the novel’s pacing.

That’s the bell. Next week: Pacing. Remember, no running in the halls


  1. Writers are like field generals.

    Finishing the book is our overall objective. The book's story is our war. The mini stories and chapters are the battles. Each paragraph can be a skirmish at times.

    Then after we win the war, an editor…a politician…comes along and tells us that we need to give back a bit of hard won ground to make the peace (piece) lasting.

    Giving up words that we sweated over is hard for an author. All too often, even in well known works, we see that authors are unwilling to give back some of those words for the sake of tightening up the story. What should have and could have been a series of mini stories that contributed to the over all story arc turn into rambling wanderings.

    Good reminder as always, Prof. Gotta give the readers, the soldiers, victories in the form of mini stories along the way so they will keep turning pages and see the book though to the end.


  2. Michael, I empathize with your friend. For me a short story is an art form very different from a novel and I like that art form both as a reader and a writer. And while it is true that a novel might be composed of a series of "mini stories" that just doesn't feel the same to me as the challenge of the short form.

    For me there are several practical reasons for writing short stories:

    1. Less of a time investment. I don't have to invest a year of my life writing the thing. It typically takes me a few weeks to a month to write a short story.

    2. More immediate feedback. I can submit a short story and hear back on whether or not I've sold it anywhere from a week to two months. (The latter case is so long because its from a market I've sold to before and I always get detailed feedback from the editor, even if I don't sell him the piece.)

    3. I can try different things. I can write one short story in first person; another in third. I can experiment with form and character. Each story is more practice.

    But when it comes down to it, all of those reasons are the practical reasons why I write short stories. The real reason I write them is because I love the form. Novels may be more lucrative, but I'm not interested in that form, I'm not passionate about it, and why do something your not passionate about when you can do something that you are passionate about just as easily?

  3. Interesting analogy, Splitter. I particularly liked the “lasting peace/piece.”

    Jamie, I agree with all your points, although I wasn’t extolling the virtues of the novel over the short story. And yes, I agreed that the short story is a different art form than the novel.

    I was merely pointing out that novels were comprised of smaller complete ideas, and in the specific case referenced at the top of the post, that those who do exclusively, and successfully write short stories ought to at least try writing a novel. Think of all the things you thought you wouldn’t like until you tried it. Think of all the things you learned by doing what was unfamiliar that often added perspective and depth to the familiar.

    I, for one, hate short stories. I neither enjoy reading, nor writing them. But I have written several, and I learned a great deal in the process, lessons that assisted and improved my novel writing. One consistent thing I discovered, like reading books in genres you don’t care for, is that exposing yourself to that which is different, unfamiliar and that which you don’t like, often bears some of the best fruits.

    Just wanted to also add to your list the fact that short stories are short, and as such make it possible for friends and relatives to read them and give you feedback even before you submit it to a publisher. That’s not so easy to do with a novel.

    Thanks to both of you for posting.

  4. While short stories are a fine form, they cannot deliver the emotional and dramatic rewards that complex novels do. In a Sanderson epic fantasy, for instance, one can truly experience a catharsis a short story cannot approach. I find it curious that short stories were described as preferable because of the pragmatic reason of “I don’t want to spend a year writing it”. Thank goodness there are novelists — and precious few — who do invest in an ambitious work and can do it very well. They provide incredible joy. That feeling of not wanting a book to end is priceless. Consider series novels, such as the Prey thrillers, Jack Reacher books. These are very popular for similar reasons even as those books allow us to live and follow many mini stories as well, even though they may not be serialized. Who can deny the grandeur of Game of Thrones (tv show) over it’s many episodes versus an adaptation that was a two hour feature or even a three movie trilogy?

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