Cut the Last Line, and Other Lessons in the Short Story

About our guest blogger:

Cynthia J. McGean is a Portland-based teacher and writer with a background in theater and social services. Her work includes novels, short stories, children’s stories and scripts for stage and radio. She loves stories with depth and complexity that aren’t afraid of the dark side of life.

Cut the Last Line, and Other Lessons in the Short Story

Over the past few months, I’ve embarked on a self-taught exploration of the short story, as I battle to improve my skills in this form and to build a presence and platform through it.  I’ve been reading a wide range of short stories, in literary magazines and in collections of all sorts.  Here’s some of what I’ve learned to make my own short stories better. Maybe it will be helpful to you, too.

  • Cut the last line.  The ending of the short story, particularly in what’s termed “literary fiction,” is nearly mystical in its finesse.  It’s so easy to go too far, to finish it too completely.  The best short stories have a sense of near-completion that leaves the final touch, the last step or conclusion, to the reader, asking them to sit with the story for a few moments more after they finish.  Some stories don’t seem to end at all, and I think that can go too far.  However, I have a bad tendency to want to put the cherry on the sundae myself, instead of letting my reader have that satisfaction.  I’ve discovered that nearly all my short stories work better if I cut the last line.  It’s a little like the advice to novel writers to cut the first 30 pages.
  • In your language and word choice, less is more.  You’ve no doubt heard the maxim that, in short stories, every word counts.  But what does that mean as you edit?  For me, it means constantly asking myself, “Do I need that word?  Do I need that sentence?”  Just like the endings, the body of the short story needs to let the reader draw inferences from the strength of your images and word choice.  In short stories, you have to take “show don’t tell” an extra step.  Show one strong resonant, inexplicable image that carries weight.  Let the reader seek meaning as the image  dissolves on their tongue.
  • Unpack the small moments.  The best short stories take time to explore the meaning in small moments, to notice the details of both the inner and outer life of that moment and let the details vibrate the strings of the reader’s own experiences.
  • Images are all.  They are the language of the short story.  They make it sing.  This is where short story and poetry share DNA.
  • Set a context of tension.  The subtle short stories don’t use an obvious “hook,” but they do establish a mood of tension at the start that is tight enough to carry the kind of unpacking and reflective exploration that makes the short story work.
  • The journey is in the character.  The inner world of the character is the essence of the short story plot arc.

These are the conclusions I’ve drawn from my exploration into the short story world.  Now, I throw open the doors to all of you to share your insights.  (Hmm … maybe I should cut those last two lines.)

Cynthia

Post was first published on Cynthia’s own blog, Writer’s Wavelength, on July 17 2012.

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2 thoughts on “Cut the Last Line, and Other Lessons in the Short Story

  1. Excellent selection of thoughts. I agree with hoogator, it’s good advice for more than just short story writing. So often I have to slow myself down to think of the effects of the individual words as well as the whole.

  2. I’d go so far to say that this is good advice for writing of any genre, not just short stories. My supervisor always hammered very similar points for technical writing.

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