It is hard to deny the power of a short story. A good one can command your attention, present unique characters in unpredictable situations and deftly tie up all the loose ends by the end.
Unlike a novel, a short story doesn’t give an author sixty thousand words to shoehorn in every possible idea or to resolve complex situations. Short stories have to contain tight plots and believable (but not clichéd) characters, and they have to convey everything concisely.
This is no easy feat, which is why reading and understanding short stories offers an author so much value — and why I now read one every day.
Why writers need to read short stories
About a year ago, already an avid novel reader, I resolved to read more short stories. My rationale was simply that I hadn’t read enough of them, and should be more familiar with the form.
After reading more than 50 of them, I realized I intuitively understood far more about the craft of writing fiction than I ever had before. It wasn’t an instantaneous progression, but as I worked on my own short stories and novels, as I fleshed out characters, as I reworked plots, my writing became more fluid and I felt like I had a sudden wealth of stories to draw on.
I’ve been reading and writing regularly since I was seven years old, so why would I suddenly understand more after a few weeks of a new habit?
Because short stories offer a condensed version of everything a novel does.
Short stories aren’t missing any important elements of fiction; they still contain a complete story arc and developed characters, they still reach a climax and include a denouement. While they may be notably shorter in length, short stories include all the same elements as novels, crafted extremely well to preserve space.
This is why I was suddenly improving so rapidly. A regular short story reader can quickly become familiar with hundreds of plots, hundreds if not thousands of characters, new settings, styles and other elements of the story. While reading a novel might show you a particular author’s interpretation, plot structure and character development, a collection of short stories can easily provide 15 or 20 “case studies” in the same size book — so you can learn much more quickly.
But then there is the problem of actually reading them. How many short stories have you read? Is it more than novels? It should be. After all, they’re shorter. But most of us decline the opportunity and favor longer works instead.
There is comfort in reading novels because once you’re familiar with a character, you can enjoy a fairly long journey together until the end. In a short story, however, you only have each other for a handful of pages before it’s over. Appreciating each short story requires a little extra focus and dedication, and this makes it easy to say, “another time maybe. Today, a novel.”
How to make more time to read
Everything is easier when you have a habit in place. If you take time off from work to write but don’t have any habits or schedules, you’ll eventually crawl back to your cubicle, forced to admit that you somehow spent the entire staycation browsing the Internet, binge watching Netflix and eating Nutella straight out of the container.
This is a normal human behavior (well, maybe not the Nutella part): Without an effective schedule, it is entirely too easy to push off the work you want to do and prevent yourself from being productive in the short term. It is a myth that reading or writing requires a lot of time.
Create a daily habit
First, set a goal. Having seen the benefits of reading short stories, I’ve resolved to read 365 a year — one short story, every single day.
The best way to solidify a daily habit is to decide to do it before anything else. The earlier in the day you enlist a new habit, the more likely you will do it because you don’t have any good excuses. If you plan to do it before you go to bed, you’ll tell yourself you’re tired, you’ll do it tomorrow night, you pushed it off too long. If you do it first thing in the morning, however, you wake up and there it is, your new habit.
I’m sure if I was really dedicated I would read my story before making coffee, but that’s too extreme for me. So I get up, make coffee, and start my day by drinking coffee and reading a short story. As it probably takes me 20 minutes every morning to drink my coffee anyway, it doesn’t even impact my morning schedule. If you’re a habitual morning rusher, then maybe get up 10 minutes earlier. You don’t need a lot of time.
The first day I tried this habit, I didn’t expect I would like it. Before even cracking my first anthology of short stories, I anticipated it would feel weird — usually, I’m a night reader — and mornings are meant for boring productive things like newspapers and shaving, not reading stories about pro bono detectives searching for missing husbands in stairwells. But I went ahead and read a story anyway.
It was awesome. I felt more awake after I finished it. I spent the day occasionally thinking back to it, processing themes and concepts, and — most importantly — even if I got jammed up at work, wrecked my car and got lost in the Amazon with nothing but a toothbrush and some duct tape, I had already read a short story. No matter what, I met my goal for the day.
Enjoy discovering new inspiration
It proved to be an easy habit to initiate and an even easier one to maintain. Set a deadline first thing in the morning, be aware of the big picture (365 stories a year) and stick with it.
If it seems like a simple suggestion, that’s because it is. This isn’t a groundbreaking system, just a way to familiarize yourself with almost 400 extra plot lines, tons of fascinating characters, and great examples of pacing, narration and sentence structure, all while drinking your morning coffee.
Do you read short stories for inspiration or to improve your craft as a writer? Have you noticed a difference in your work?