I’ve written a few short stories recently and I’ve struggled with the difference between a short story and a first chapter. This debate comes partly because I have so many ideas, and I love the creative bursts that come with first chapters. I also like the idea of writing a whole novel, using my short story ideas as seeds, so I’ve tended towards writing short stories that could be expanded into novels if I had the urge (i.e. they could double as either a short story or a first chapter).
I’ve also had some degree of success in my recent writing, with acceptance to an anthology (An Improbable Truth: The Paranormal Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, out later in October) and an honourable mention in the Writers of the Future contest. I am not sure how much of it is improved writing skill and how much from better understanding the short form of fiction.
So I’ve thought about the difference between short stories and first chapters a bit, and one of the main differences in my mind, that I think is less well discussed and maybe worth considering, is the difference between an egg and a wiffle ball.
Confused? Let me explain…
An egg is completely self-contained, everything inside circular, trapped, self-reinforcing. A wiffle ball has a bunch of holes that air spins in and out of. It is connected to the larger world around it, even though its basic shape is the same. How does this apply to writing?
A first chapter can introduce many cool things very briefly, the start of threads that will be explored a chapter or two down the road. It doesn’t have to have much significant meaning right away. But with a short story, you are trying to amplify the impact on the reader of a small story segment, and that story segment will be more powerful if more of the elements reinforce each other. If more of the peripheral details, whether part of setting or plot, reinforces the main story idea or theme. You are better to examine every element of a short story and see if you can bend it to reinforce that section of writing, rather than leaving something to build until later.
An example, you ask? Certainly.
In “Time’s Running Out, Watson,” (my to-be-published short story) I originally had the villainess holding a futuristic weapon, beyond the time device that the story revolves around. I figured an evil scientist-type would have more than one trick up her sleeve, right? But eventually I took the extra weapon out and had her threaten Watson and Holmes with the time device instead. That way, the focus was razor-sharp on a single cool idea, the time device, rather than something broader. If I had been writing it as a novel, maybe I would have wanted to include a second device, to show people that my villainess wasn’t a one-trick pony and develop her character and backstory more. In fact, I’d probably want more loose ends within the first chapter, to twig reader curiosity, and lead to a greater and deeper finale at the end. But in a short story, I have to be more careful.
Egg or wiffle ball. Short story or first chapter. There is a line you can dance in the middle, where something could be read as either a short story or first chapter, but it is indeed a dance, and the most important thing to know, as a writer, is what can go wrong. At least then, you’re making a conscious decision on how to address it and whether the risk is worth taking. So now you can think about it too.
I’m off to play badminton. Neither egg nor wiffle ball it shall be. 😉
The featured image is a quick pencil sketch done for the post, maybe forty five minute’s work. Enjoy. On the personal front, I’m actually not getting much writing done, sadly, as work pressures and sick kids (the THIRD time my older boy has got hand foot mouth, gah!) have sucked all my free time into the abyss. But I have people critiquing a short story I finished on my recent cruise, which I quite liked and got good feedback on, and I’m hoping to submit it to an anthology call at the end of the month. It was a fun effort, and dances the line between short story and first chapter, inspiring the post above. We’ll see how I do in walking that line.