Why not? An exercise in finding the comfort zone of your short story

Why not? An exercise in finding the comfort zone of your short story

Sweetcakes is teaching a community education class at her local university and alma mater. The class is focused on writing, rather than workshopping, which I decided to do as a radical act, in that I firmly belive the hardest thing for many writers to do is to show up, put your ass in the chair, and write, write, write. So I am saying no to the workshop for now and focusing on writing exercises, and talking about writing, and having the students set their own goals. We talk each week about how they're meeting those goals, and chat about ways to keep the momentum going. I've been happy with the way the class has unfolded.

The following exercise should help you figure out the best length for your story. Give it a whirl.

Claire Guyton, in her essay “No, You do Not Have to Write A Novel” says “All I want to do in this world is write just one perfect short story.”

It’s a noble goal, and what I love about that quote is this: it allows the short story to be the goal. So much of what we as writers hear is that a novel is the only way to pay the rent, to make it as a writer. Fortunately, we live in a time where the short story is receiving the attention it deserves as “the most courageous form” (Lorrie Moore).

Still how do you know how long your short story should be?  It’s easy – try this experiment to determine your story’s comfort zone.


Arnold, Bay, Carline, Dalyn, Effie, Grace, Hugh, Isabelle, Joe, Kristof, Leif, Marisol, Netta, Oliver, Prax, Quinn, Rhett, Sal, Ursula, Violet, Wanda, Xavier, Yerba, Zoe

Towns (borrowed from this list)

Beauty, KY, Best, TX, Bountiful, UT, Carefree, AZ, Celebration, FL, Friendly, WV, Happy Camp, CA, Happyland, CT, Ideal, GA, Lovely, KY, Luck Stop, KY, Magic City, ID, Paradise, MI, Smileyberg, KS, Success, MO, What Cheer, IA, Boring, OR, Dinkytown, MN, Eek, AK, Embarrass, WI, Flat, TX, Greasy, OK, Gripe, AZ, Hardscrabble, DE, Hazard, KY, Oddville, KY, Okay, OK, Ordinary, KY, Peculiar, MO, Sod, WV, Why, AZ


Character seeks to harm someone, helps them instead; the worst moment just passed; soccer player bites ear; soldier returns home, his dog has been sold; invisible friend is missing; both people left, neither of them know it; boy wants girl who wants alien; both characters are wrong and lying; ignoring the warning sign; someone knows someone else’s secret; actor turns down most-coveted role because of illness; children go for a drive


Pick one-two characters from the names list, one town, and one situation

  • Write a single-paragraph story. Make it complete.
  • Now write that story in six words.
  • Now rewrite that first paragraph as if you were setting the stage for a novel.
  • Now rewrite it as if you were writing a 10-page story

Study the different approaches you took with each assignment. What works well, what doesn’t? What did you learn differently about the characters, the setting, the situation in the different openings/stories?  Did you pull the view out wider for the longer format? Did you choose words differently? How did you decide what not to include, what to leave out of the shorter formats? Did you change point of view? Shoud you? Which format feels to you that it has the most energy?

Follow-on exercise:

Pick one of the longer formats and keep working on it to complete a full longer story.