The Pace of Short Fiction

Posted on June 21, 2011 by

Novelists have a luxury that short story writers do not enjoy: they have fifty to a hundred thousand (or more) words in which to achieve their desired effect on readers. Those working with the short form of fiction labour under many of the same obligations: we have to create a universe, populate it, and paint a workable story on its canvas… but we have to do it at about one-tenth of the length. On the plus side, short story writers don’t usually have to explore the extended history of the world they are writing in, let alone generate maps! In short fiction, we rarely have to generate subplots for our stories, script extensive biographies for our principal characters, or create and educate readers in alien languages.

Many novels open slowly–they still have hooks, but a chief concern in beginning a novel-length work of SF often lies in establishing atmosphere as well as providing extensive setting and character details, giving a reader a sense of the novel’s milieu, establishing the author’s prose style, and setting out the principal symbolic and thematic elements of the piece. Stories do some of these things, but swiftly–we must introduce our story elements in a few paragraphs and then get on with the business of moving our conflict forward.

The trickiest issue in pacing short fiction, of course, is that your prose cannot seem breathless or rushed: unless you are writing an action sequence or another type of quick and choppy scene, your story has to feel unhurried; the reader must have time to breathe. Nobody wants to be quickly ushered through a plot and dropped off at its ending without so much as a wave goodbye. Somehow you have to provide a leisurely tour of your setting and a strong sense of your characters while carrying us swiftly to the story’s conclusion.

The key to the unhurried brevity demanded of short fiction is the power of suggestion. Letting small details suggest volumes about your world and its people is tricky, but it is also a technique well worth learning. Examine how various SF writers accomplish this in the assigned readings and other stories; then look at your own work and see where your strengths lie.

If you can evoke your setting with a well-placed phrase here and there, if you can help a reader understand your character’s motives with the right snatch of dialogue or telling action, you will have more words left free for critical story issues: character transitions, exposition on the trickier elements of your SF concept, and polishing your prose to make the story a seamless and suspenseful whole.

Questions to ask about pacing:

    • What is each scene accomplishing? Multitasking is the heart of fast-paced prose: if you can deepen character, advance plot, and provide setting details all at the same time, you are going to have a tightly written and entertaining piece.
    • What elements of the piece are most important? If something matters, spend the time and the necessary words to make it clear, compelling and interesting. Look for moments where the characters’ situation changes. These are the points where the narrative should slow. Imagine a spotlight shining on these key transitions in your story… now highlight what’s going on in those sections.
    • Where can you deepen your worldbuilding using suggestion, i.e. without adding huge amounts of verbiage? Are your proper nouns carrying their weight? (Connie Willis tells readers something about the universe in which her story “Spice Pogrom” takes place simply by naming the locale where it takes place the Space Station Sony.) Can you create a few interesting colloquial phrases to give readers a sense of the setting?
    • Are you reinventing the wheel? Can you make use of some of the well-understood conventions of SF and folkore to establish the underpinnings of your world and save on words? In other words, could the bloodsucking fiends of your horror story be vampires? Could the odd, long-lived folk of your fantasy story be Elves? Sometimes drawing on the existing foundations of the genre leaves space for you to spotlight the areas where your unique vision of the universe comes into play.

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