Writing the Short Story

on February 16, 2012

“The victim is Ashley Young,” the responding officer, Sampson, told me as I approached. It was officially Tuesday morning: 12:02 a.m.

I recognized Sampson from the station, but hadn’t worked a case with him. “We found her purse over there.” He gestured toward the Dumpster near where the alley and walkway intersected. He handed me her California driver’s license. Ashley was twenty-four, five feet five inches tall, one hundred ten pounds, blonde hair and blue eyes.

Pretty and blonde, just the way Greg Keller—aka “the River City Rapist”—liked his prey.

I stuffed my hands back into the pockets of my wool coat. The fog had thickened after the sunset, penetrating my bones. The fog layer was supposed to keep the rain away, but the ground had been wet after a week of this unending dreariness. Usually I liked the gray; tonight it was simply depressing.

“Why are we still in the alley?”

“Ms. Young started to panic when I suggested we go to the car. My partner fetched the blanket for her.” His tone was a bit defensive. My reputation preceded me once again.

“Good,” I said, hoping to smooth the relationship. I was known as the stereotypical bitch cop. The reputation wasn’t wholly warranted; it stemmed from a couple cases early in my career. But like the game of telephone, truth became distorted in the repeated telling.

I said, “Check on the ambulance, would you please? The paramedics should be here by now.”

Sampson stepped aside and got on his radio.

Ashley watched me as I approached. I showed her my badge. “I’m Detective Selena Black with Sac P.D. It’s my job to find the guy who did this.”

From Above Reproach by Allison Brennan

People have told me time and again that writing short is “easy;” I’ve also heard the advice given that writers should start “short” before starting a full-length novel.

For me, writing short is as hard—or harder—than writing a 100,000 word book.

In my high school American History class—one of my all-time favorite classes taught by one of my all-time favorite teachers—Mr. Perkins gave me an ‘A-minus’ on my final essay and wrote, “You so eloquently said in ten pages what could easily have been said in five.”

For me, writing short is damn hard.

I learned the hard way that a short story is not a short novel. There isn’t room for multiple viewpoints or sub-plots; get to the meat of the story as fast as possible. Avoid unnecessary detail and description, but give enough so the reader is grounded in the story and satisfied with the resolution. The best short stories will make you think about the story or the characters long after you finish reading.

Much easier to talk about than to actually write. But I love a challenge, and writing short stories has improved my writing across the board–chiefly, tightening my prose and avoiding over-explanation.

In the excerpt above, I started as close to the end of the story as possible—my detective is at a crime scene, we know who the victim is, and we know who the rapist is.

My detective can’t prove Keller is the rapist, he’s a high-profile government attorney who quashed a subpoena for his DNA—which was left on the first victim. Selena is frustrated and her hands are tied—unless she can get Ashley Young to positively ID her attacker.

There’s a whole story before this opening scene – four victims, investigative grunt work, legal maneuvers, Selena figuring out how Keller is targeting his victims and why he cuts their face. But the core story in “Above Reproach” is how this case is resolved, and the obstacles Selena faces. And the first huge obstacle is what happens to Ashley Young. It’s more a hard-boiled detective story with a bit of romance between Selena and the handsome surgeon who she met while working the case.

“Above Reproach” is nearly 17,000 words. Longer than most short stories, but shorter than a novella. I’ve written three novellas – that ranged from 24K to 39K, and five short stories between 4K and 11K. Believe me – the shorter the story, the harder it was to write.

Some people don’t like short stories, but I’d argue that short stories have shaped readers from the time we were kids. Stephen King is the master of the short story, and single-handedly resurrected this dying art form.

Short stories are not only entertaining, they usually share a universal truth that we tap into. And the best stories stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Some of my favorite short stories—the tales that I have recalled, pondered, re-read—had an emotional impact on me. Many have twists at the end, and because they’re short, the author doesn’t find it necessary to over-explain (the kiss of death for short stories.)

“Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” was a Stephen King short story that I loved, and became one of my favorite movies of all time. I’ve always liked his short works as much as most of his novels. I’ll never forget “Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut” or “The Langoliers” or “Word Processor of the Gods.”

Other stories that had a huge impact on me, both in shaping my reading and my philosophy, include “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson; “The Sound of Thunder” and “And He Built a Crooked House” by Ray Bradbury; “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe; and “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I’m sure if I thought about it longer and pulled out some books from my shelves I could come up with a substantially longer list of stories that impacted me in multiple ways.

Even some of my favorite books were very short – hardly longer than a novella. Animal Farm by George Orwell; The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne; Fahrenheit-451 by Ray Bradbury.

Yesterday, Lori asked what your favorite short story was … but what I want to know, what short story did you read as a kid or young adult that had a lasting effect on you? Why?

Remember … we’re giving away five digital copies of GUNS AND ROSES this week. And, for today’s commenters, I’ll also be giving away a copy of TWO OF THE DEADLIEST, edited by Elizabeth George, which includes my short story “A Capitol Obsession.” Just comment and you’re entered in both drawings!