Writing — Scope


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.

Happy writing!


29 comments to Writing — Scope

  • Thanks, Stuart. I’ve not written many short stories, but when I have, my biggest problem seems to be scope. Of the last three short stories I’ve written, two have been more like final chapters in novels, and the other one didn’t end well. Part of the problem is I read far fewer short stories than I do novels, and my thinking is drawn on what I’ve read. The other problem is that I like complex characters and I find it difficult to develop those briefly (as done a few posts back about characters).

    Have you ever tried to write serial shorts? I’ve an idea for a character with an over-arcing problem that I want to write a series of short stories for, but haven’t been able to keep it from growing.

  • NewGuyDave — I have written serial shorts before. They can be very tricky to write and sell. On the writing end, while you may have an over-arcing problem, each short must be a complete story in which the over-arcing problem gets referred to BUT that it only seems like colorful details and not a sub-plot or secondary line. This is especially important because on the selling side of things, chances are you’ll be placing these stories in different venues (unless you can get a single magazine to purchase the whole series which is unlikely except if you’re a big name). Good luck. Let us know how it works out.

  • When I first started writing, I could only envision short stories. Then I forced myself to write novels. Now when I try to return to a short story I can’t since all my ideas try to turn into novels.

    So it is hard trying to switch between the two for some people. It’s a whole different mindset.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Sorry, this is an aside to NGD’s comment. If you haven’t heard of it already, you might check out Rebel Tales, which is a project that Holly Lisle is working on starting up. The idea is to electronically publish serial fiction in a range of sizes. It’s not quite the same as serial shorts, because she’s requiring each installment have a cliff-hanger ending until the last one (and she’s got some other pretty specific requirements). I suspect, however, that what she’s looking for will also have interesting requirements in terms of scope, since the stories will have the opportunity for more lengthy exploration, but will still need to be focused enough to make for a fun, satisfying read in each installment.

  • Mark — You’re not alone. I’ve heard the same from many writers. For me, however, I try to throw a short story or two in between novels or when I need to take a break before revisions. It keeps me from having the gear switch issues and I like what short story writing does for my novels.

    Hepseba — I’d not heard of Rebel Tales. I’ll check it out. Thanks.

  • Stuart, thanks for this. It makes a lot of sense. I tend to think in that big scope and find it harder to create vignettes, but your advice is golden.

    Hepseba – Yay, another Holly fan!

  • I wish I’d had access to these insights years ago when I was first trying my hand at short fiction. It took a lot of trial and error and false starts before I started to get the hang of this. Those red flags will be helpful the next time I start a piece — and they’ll be something for us to keep in mind as we work on our collaboration. Thanks, Stuart.

  • Chase

    Great post, Stuart! Well done.

    I think I had a sub-plot in one of my stories, but it was only one sentence long. Lol.

  • Oddly enough, long ago I thought that it was impossible for me to ever write a short story. I just couldn’t conceive of how someone could manage to get all the relevant information smashed into such a short space. Now I’ve got bunches of them sitting on my hard drive, flash drive, zip drive, external hard drive, etc. Only sent two out so far… and then found out that the company I sent to had just gone under… talk about timing. Don’t know why I haven’t sent out more. I’ve got two zombie-centric ones I may just end up handing to Eden Studios for free for their website reboot.

  • ekcarmel — Like I said in the post, it takes a bit of trial and error to learn how to make a story out a narrower scope. The upside is that, like a novel, when you nail it, wow does that ever feel good!

    David — Reading many of the posts on this site has given me the same wish. I learned a lot about this business by making mistakes and am thankful for MW because it helps me avoid further foul-ups at this stage.

  • Chase — A one sentence sub-plot? 🙂 I suppose if it was flash fiction…but, then again, nope. Even one sentence is too much.

    Daniel — Send those stories out! You can’t get them published if editors don’t get a chance to read them. Granted we all have stories packed away because they don’t cut it (I think I figured out once that for every story I published I have about three that never have sold), but surely there are good ones worth your effort to send out. Besides, when it sells, you can use the proceeds to go out to the movies or maybe even dinner! If it’s a really good magazine, maybe both. Oh yeah!

  • Ryl

    Stuart, you must be psychic —

    Scope is *exactly* what I’ve agonizing over for the last week. It seems that whenever I get a nifty idea for a short story or a novelette, it wants to ‘grow up’ and become a novel — or worse, a series. Makes it bloody hard to complete that first draft.

    You’ve just shown me it’s a matter of mindset, not material, offering a way to possibly apply the brakes so I don’t have to go downhill like a juggernaut into the bay in a van full of beer: No point in steering, now, eh.

    Thanks! I’ll be giving these boundaries a serious try.

  • Stuart — There was a time when I could start a short story, and as long as I had a good idea what the ending was going to be, I knew within a page or two if it was going to be 2000 or 5000 or 9000 words long. But lately I’ve lost that. Lately everything I write wants to fill itself in with backstory and subplots, and I struggle to write anything shorter than 12 to 15,000 words. It’s a bit of a pain, because I really did enjoy writing short stories…

  • Ryl and Edmund — As much as we writers like to talk about our characters doing things on their own and our stories growing beyond our control, remember this: We are in control!!!! You really can rein in your tales. Of course some ideas are just big ideas and you mistakenly thought they were small ideas. Also, remember that there’s nothing wrong with writing a short story and then expanding it later. Come on now, the world needs good short stories. Think of all those readers you’re denying! 🙂

  • Stuart, great post.
    Similar to what Edmund is feeling now, my heart always wants to write novels. Even knowing that the scope is *supposed* to be short, I can see it as a novel. Fighting that down to a ahort is *hard!*

  • Faith — I understand completely. Something I do (which may work for another post but I’ll put the basic idea here) is to try to combine scenes. Rather than have each step of the story’s progression occur on its own — something you might do in a novel — try to make one scene do double- or triple-duty. If nothing else, thinking through the problem of creating such a scene will illuminate for you what is truly important to your story and what is superfluous.

  • QUOTE: Of course some ideas are just big ideas and you mistakenly thought they were small ideas.

    Yeah, my current WIP was supposed to be a novella length story for submission to an anthology that grew out of control and is now a full novel of 100k+ words.

  • “Remember this: We are in control!!!!”

    You may be in control, Stuart, but… Well, I never know when I start a new project whether it’s going to be a flash, a short story, or some humongous series. Seriously.

    I know that I could pull in the reins and force my notion into one form (length) or another, but when I’ve done so it killed something, and the story went flat.

    It’s a bloody inconvenient way to work, but nothing succeeds like success.

  • Tom G

    I’ve never had a problem with scope. I tend to just know if an idea is a short or a novel. 99 out of 100 are novel ideas. I just assume I am a natural born novelist. But, I’ve only sold short stories–2 to anthology, 1 to paying mag, and I’m not sure how many to none-paying to super/hyper/micro small/tiny press.

    My problem is figuring out which ideas are worth actually writing (I think I chose wrong more often that not).

  • Daniel — It happens. At least you were able to morph it into a novel and not suffer watching the whole thing fall apart.

    Wolf — This is a subject for a whole post but I respectfully suggest that, at the very least, your sub-conscious is making decisions. After all, you’re the only one writing the words. I do understand organic methods of creating, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to admit that, on some level, you made the decisions of the piece. Now, when my characters don’t want to do what I want them to do, that’s my aware self arguing with my sub-conscious. Still me, though. So be encouraged. You have more control than you give yourself credit for!

  • Tom — On spec, the ones worth writing are the ones you can’t get out of your head, the ones that excite you, gnaw at you, or in some way strike you. Chances are, those ideas will illicit similar reactions in others. Under contract, the one worth writing are the ones somebody’s paying you to write. 😉

  • 11on2d6

    Offtopic.. i know, but I just had a thought.

    How do we all do it? how do we START? How does any writer start their story, their adventure? Do you have an idea, and immediately start writing and see where it leads, with the aim of future refining of your plot? Alternatively do you plan out every detail on a meticulous timeline and then just bulk each part out by actually writing?

    How do you guys do it?

  • 11on2d6

    I should have given my above question some context really… What I was thinking about was how hard it is to consider “scope” until an idea ( any luck a novel) is fully formed, or I guess one could decide on the scope they want to follow, and make their writing fit that…

  • 11on2d6 — Good question that can create many diverse and complex answers. Within the context of Scope, the answer is a bit easier, however. You don’t have to have the whole thing figured out. You simply have to be realistic with yourself about where you’re going. Obviously the more you work out before writing, the easier such things as scope are to control on the first draft, but here’s an example for the pantsers among you: perhaps all you have to start with is a character — let’s say a muscular barbarian with a penchant for the word Crom. As you start to write his adventure, you see that he apparently wants to defeat King Scary Pants and mate with Princess Omg. How is he going to do this? If you decide it can all be solved in single combat with the King’s fiercest warrior, then your scope could easily work for a short story — essentially two warriors in single combat. The rest is just window dressing. However, if you decide the only way the story will work is if our hero infiltrates the King’s castle by posing as a sorcerer which require said hero to navigate the seven deadly challenges and then he must overcome . . . well, already you can see the scope is huge. At this point, as the writer (pantser or otherwise), you have the power to choose — either go with the narrow path for a short story, take the long road for a novel, or sit down and think of a new solution. For those who plan things out, the process is similar except that it’s done in the mind and thus, worked out before the writing starts.

  • 11on2d6

    Thanks for your response Stuart,though it does bring up another concern of mine. You mentioned “window dressing”, and while I understand its just the phrase you used, am i correct in deducing you essentially mean filling? or the “stuff” you surround the story you want to tell in, just to prevent the reader from getting bored? This mentality is one of my biggest issues, to me I understand the necessity of it, but it feels almost unfair..like your just throwing stuff in there until you feel it is ok to get back to the character you like most or your favorite part of the world you have created. I don’t think im expressing it very well but does anyone know what I mean?

    Related to this, how do you guys deal with having a favorite character that you like a lot more than all the others?

    Thanks for your sharing your experience with us wanabe’s btw all of you!


  • 11on2d6

    Also can I make a suggestion, I just went through and found all the articles I could on “writing your book” by David, It might be worth consolidating them into 1 massive article for reference since they so far seem to be one of the most indepth and useful resources to aspiring writers I have ever found.

    Thanks again,


  • 11 — No, I didn’t mean “window dressing” to suggest unimportant filler, but rather that these things are attached to the core of the story but are not the core. The core is the mannequin in the window, the rest is what the mannequin is wearing, where it is located, etc. Just the core is boring, but without it, the dressing has nothing to be displayed on. Both are essential — otherwise, your window dressing become empty filler. Hope that belabored analogy makes sense.

    As for our past posts, check out Edmund’s posts where he explains some of the things we have in store for you all, including our How-To Book which will incorporate many of these posts.

  • 11on2d6

    That mannequin image actually made me laugh, very nicely put, thanks for explaining. One last question, and this is certain to be different for different people and could probably take at least a page to respond to properly. Why do you write what you write? Is it to expose a thematic issue that has deep meaning to you personally? Or to share a varied and wonderful world of your imagination with others? or maybe even for the sheer joy of delving into an adventure and seeing it grow, knowing its all your work?

    For me I think it would be melange of all three of my suggestions, I see writing as a vehicle to convey issues I have with the world at large ( rather than actually doing anything about them :)), but also because I LOVE fantasy, everything about it from its sheer deviation from reality to its intrigues and mysteries.

  • 11 — You’re right. To answer those questions would take at least a page (and probably far more). If I can find a way to write it succinctly, I’ll make an upcoming post about it.