12.33: How to be Brief, Yet Powerful

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley

We’ve talked about some of the structural guidelines for short stories. In this episode we’ll discuss how to write in the short form while still putting down enough words to convey the story powerfully.

Credits: This episode was recorded in Chicago by Andrew Twiss, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Select 1 character, 1 object, and 1 genre. Write a 250 word short story.

Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

6 thoughts on “12.33: How to be Brief, Yet Powerful”

  1. Thanks for the great discussion!

    I moved away from writing short stories after college to focus on novel length works, but I always take a step back, pull from that tool set, and write focused 250-500 word shorts featuring new characters and new locations whenever I start feeling burn out. I try to avoid doing any pre-planning, instead choosing a subject or encounter I’ve had recently and putting a spin on it. Oh, I recently adopted a husky pup and did some work mapping a remote alpine lake at the base of glacier? What about a dog sled driver who delivers giant blocks of ice cut from frozen lakes by sled? 250 words later and I know a lot about her feelings toward members of her dog team as she tries to free the sled from entanglement with a forest pine. Then I jump back to my novel and my mind starts working out a way I can get her to cross paths with my desert sheepherders. My readers will never see her trying to untangle six brawling dogs in the middle of a snow storm, but the character behaviors I developed exploring that scene will hopefully make her memorable if she shows up in the novel. Ultimately, even if the story goes off the rails and she never makes the cut, I kept writing that day and didn’t lose momentum.

    This recent discussion series has me excited to go back to writing short stories. I’ve resolved to have the last 20% of this novel draft completed before attending any of Mary’s short story talks at the Surrey conference. I refuse to be inspired away from my current project and I know there’s no resisting the pep talk, so better to be safely done with my long form project before walking in the door.

  2. Out of Chicago, the frolicking foursome, Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley, brought us a discussion of how to make ideas linger after reading, even in a few words. Keep the character, and the action, focused. Watch out for headbutts! Keep the stakes in mind. Ice-cold opens! Titles, evoking a world in a word or five, and the wonder of specificity? Read the transcript, and see how even long form writers like Brandon and Wesley put brevity to use! Now in the archives or over here


  3. This really helped! I had a really hard time grasping the nuances of flash fiction when we learned about it in college. So learning that it is one try-fail cycle really helped me understand the concept!

    On a side note, would it be out of line to post my flash fiction piece in the comments and see how I did?

    1. On a side note, would it be out of line to post my flash fiction piece in the comments and see how I did?

      “Gentlemen, You Can’t Fight In Here! This is The War Room!”

    2. Hyalin rummaged through the drawer, muttering to herself. She distinctly remembered watching Master Gawan place the amulet in his desk drawer after Prince Myan’s initiation ceremony. But now that they needed it for more than ceremonial purposes, she couldn’t find it. Shifting aside magic inkwells, glimmering dragon scales, and dried cat bones, she kept watch for the tell-tale shimmer of polished jade.

      Her hand touched the oak drawer bottom, and she groaned. Master Gawan had warned her that the amulet liked to wander. Why now of all times? The Queen was counting on the fabled protection spell for her negotiations with the King of Amarynth. The spell hadn’t been used since the War of Famines seventy years prior, due to the complicated forging process.

      With a sigh, she slammed the drawer shut and glanced around the office, searching. It wasn’t on the mantle above the fireplace where it had wandered last time. She crouched down until her cheek brushed against the dirt-dusted cobblestone floor. If it hid underneath the desk it would glow a haunting green, but there was only darkness.

      Hyalin stood, brushed herself off, and stopped. A glimmer in the corner of her eye drew her gaze upward to the amulet, hanging from a hook above her head. Glaring at the amulet, she stood on a wooden stool and reached.

      Her outstretched fingertips brushed against the polished jade, and the worn leather strap snapped. Horrified, Hyalin watched as the amulet tumbled to the floor, shattering upon impact.


    It wasn’t often that Zed got lost, nearly two centuries wandering the Wastes seemed to prevent that. This day, however, he had to admit as he walked into the depression, that he was, for once, lost.
    With a curse Zed unrolled his canvas map and traced his finger along the path he had been traveling to a blank spot near the center.
    This must be where I am, but how would I not have marked such a place? He thought, scanning his surroundings. To his left towered a dilapidated building with palms stretching up to the upper windows. A small waterfall flowed over a second story ledge into a pond that rested in the shadow of the building. To his right a swallow swooped from the branches of a gigantic willow tree. Lilies rested throughout the pond, completing the beautiful scene.
    How in Kaia’s name has such an oasis gone unnoticed for so long? Zed sat down cross legged, pulled out a stick of charcoal, and gazed at his map once again. The map was a visual catconophy of marks and lines symbolizing Zed’s numerous discoveries. Nowhere in all the vast, empty Wastes had he come across such an idyllic place. Excitement welled in his chest at the new discovery.
    I might be the first to set foot here since the Calamity. he thought, welling with pride. Then more somberly he thought, And I may be the last. This may be the last place like this to be found in all the Wastes. He paused, charcoal hovering above the canvas.
    After a time Zed got up, stowed his map and charcoal stick in his pack and climbed the sandy slopes of the depression. his map left unmarked.

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