A week or so ago, I had the joyous experience of finishing the rough draft on my latest novel. And while it sits quietly resting for a few weeks, I’ve turned my attention to several short stories that I’ve agreed to write for various anthologies. Looking at the creation process has brought to mind the subject of today’s post: Scope.
The scope of your tale, if it is to be a short story, is extremely important. Many of my attempts at short stories failed because the scope was wrong. So, first off, what is Scope?
Scope refers to the size or range of the tale itself. Not the word count or page count but the size of the story. A tale that covers seven generations of three families has a long, wide scope. A tale that covers the final three seconds of one person’s last breath has a short, narrow scope.
In my experience, the best short stories find a place nearer to the middle but leaning toward the narrow side. This, of course, is easier said than done. Ideas pop in my head and I love the details of the conflict, the grandeur of the idea, the wondrousness of it all. Yes! I’ve got the Hugo winner waiting to be put on paper. Slow down, my brain says. This won’t work in 5,000 words. Flesh it out and the idea might be a good novel but it’ll never work for a short story. I lower my head and nod.
So, how exactly can you tell if you’re on the right track with the scope of your story? Sadly, as a beginning writer, one of the best ways is trial and error. You have to experience it to understand where that sweet-spot is, so you can recognize it down the road. There are, however, some red flags to look for:
- Changing viewpoints: One of the first shorts I ever wrote dealt with two guys holding up a diner. The story was told in steps by each of the five characters in the diner. Sort of a Rashomon thing but forward moving. The problem is that in a short story there’s just not enough time to establish five main characters. Though the “time” aspect of the scope of the overall story is fine (a holdup in a diner), the method of telling the story created too large a scope (five main characters).
- Too Much Info: If you find yourself having to explain a lot of backstory, do a lot of world-building, or perform a lot of writing acrobatics just to get readers up to speed enough to understand the story, chances are your scope is too large. A huge world with a complex magic system can be wonderful fodder for short stories, just narrow the one particular tale down so that the world and its magic don’t need full explanations to work.
- Filler: Most problems in scope for short stories fall in the “too large” category, but on occasion you can have an idea that is so narrow, it boarders on flash fiction. The biggest red flag is that you find yourself struggling for something to happen in order to fill out the tale or you’re putting in unimportant details to pad out the pacing before you get to the end too quick.
- Sub-plots: This is a short story. Where did you think there was room for a sub-plot?
Of course, these are merely red flags, not hard and fast rules. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of award-winning stories that pull off these scope issues and thumb their fictitious noses at me. But the way they succeed is by knowing what the problem is and working around it.
So this post is meant to be nothing more than a way to help you identify potential problems. Beginners, if you see those red flags, start adjusting your tale and save yourself a lot of anguish. For the more advanced writers, if you see those red flags, you know the fire you’re playing with and the risks you take.