The Short Story as a Sprint
By Katie Zdybel
When I talk about short stories with writers and clients, I often find myself using too many metaphors—some of them laughable, some of them seem to do the trick. The short story is a race car, it’s a snapshot, it’s a bird.
The metaphor changes depending on what kind of short story the writer is writing—snappy flash fiction or an experiment with form—and it all depends on what speaks to the writer. But the metaphor does help, because it allows us to pluck something intangible from the air and turn it over in our hands. A form that we can point at and say, here’s where it’s missing a screw. Here’s where there’s an extra wing. Here is its heart.
This is one that I’ve been relying on lately for my own writing: the short story as a sprint. Simple, plain (I’m sure I’m not the first to use it); it works for me no matter what style of short story I’m writing.
The beginning is so important; you’ve got to be off with a bang, fully loaded. That doesn’t mean the opening should be shocking or clever or that the protagonist should be caught dangling from a skyscraper.
Personally, I’m far more engaged by authenticity and beauty than cleverness or drama. But there should be urgent purpose, the feeling of needing to spring forward, of compulsion, right from the first line. That compulsion comes not from a car chase or flashy dialogue, but from simply having a story to tell. The reader should feel that the writer absolutely must tell this story, right now, and that they are surging forward with it, unstoppable.
Next, the short story has to stay in its lane. There’s no room to take a sideways step in the short form. The correct lane is your theme, or said differently, the story’s reason for being, the journey toward the protagonist’s desire.
We are in hot pursuit of the protagonist’s desire; it’s urgent that we follow it. It takes a while to see your story’s lane. You find it by decoding the subtext you’ve written into it, often unwittingly. I have to read my early drafts many times before I find it, leaning my ear to it, listening, listening, then ah-ha! This is what I’ve been writing about; this is what my protagonist truly wants, so this is where I’m going. And if I run as fast as I can between these two painted lines, I’ll get there.
Finally, the ending is crucial. You’ve got to surpass full-steam, even speed up at the end. The timing and the position are everything; you cannot veer or slow. It takes a lot more drafts to cross the finish line.
If I’m struggling with the ending—if it doesn’t fill me with total elation when I read the last word—then I’m missing something in that subtext and theme. I have to bend my ear to the story even more. Tell me, story, what are the final words that will bring me across the finish line to the feeling of personal victory and pure satisfaction? Once I hear it, I rewrite again, this time knowing where I’m going and how to get there.
And I go for it—like an Olympian, like a race car! Like a bird!
Katie's first collection of short stories, titled Equipoise, was shortlisted for the 2018 HarperCollins | UBC Prize for Best New Fiction. She is the recipient of a 2019 and 2021 Canada Council for the Arts award, the Peter Hinchcliffe Short Fiction Award, the Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction award, and was publisher-nominated for a Journey Prize as well as two National Magazine Awards in fiction. Katie is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and has worked on PRISM International’s editorial board. As a manuscript editor, she enjoys working with character, theme, and imagery.