Thriller 3: Love is Murder – the art of the short

by Alexandra Sokoloff

As fate would have it, it’s my turn for Wildcard Tuesday right on the day that the ITW’s  new romantic suspense anthology Thriller 3: Love is Murder is released.

(Fate, hah. This was no doubt Liz Berry arranging things with the universe, in that sweetly inexorable way she has. Those of you who know Liz know what I mean.)

Anyway, it’s apropos, because this is a Murderati-heavy anthology – Our Allison Brennan co-edited with Sandra Brown, and  it features stories by Allison, Rob Browne, JT Ellison, and me – along with Rati favorites Lee Child and Heather Graham and a whole lot of other great authors. As you can see from that lineup, it’s going to be a bit more heavy on the suspense than on the romance, but that’s what we like, right?

I’ve said here before I very rarely write short stories. For me it’s every bit as hard to come up with a great idea for a short story as it is for a novel, so my feeling has always been: why not push through and MAKE it a novel (or script) which will serve as an income stream instead of just a fun advertisement for your books that ARE income-producing?

I know that sounds horribly practical, but writers have to be practical if we want to eat.

But maybe I’m just a long-form writer by nature. I wrote my first short story, The Edge of Seventeen, only because I was asked to contribute to an anthology I thought was a really cool idea – stories about marginalized superheroes (people of color, women), and I thought I could probably manage a dark story about an alienated high-school girl who has to become a heroine in horrific circumstances. She’s dreaming about a terrible massacre at her school, and becomes convinced that she can stop the shooting with the help of a popular boy, her secret crush, who is having the same dream. I wrote it, loved it, and it went on to win a Thriller Award for Best Short Fiction. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and the situations and it just kept nagging me that there was a lot more to it, and last year I finally just gave in to that pull and adapted the story as a VERY dark YA thriller, The Space Between.

I was right – there was a whole hell of a lot more to it, including quantum physics and parallel universes, and I’m actually now going to have to continue the whole thing as a trilogy.

And now that I’ve written my dreamlike Bahamian cat-and-mouse encounter In Atlantis for the Love is Murder anthology, I’m having the same thing happen – I can’t stop thinking about the characters and what happens for them next, and I know I’m going to end up expanding the story into a novel which may actually turn into a series.

So my very infrequent attempts at short stories seem to turn out to be springboards for future novels.

Yet people are always asking me to talk about how to structure a short story. And even though I don’t have much experience writing them myself, I can look at them analytically and come to conclusions that may be helpful (you know my prescription for everything by now – MAKE A LIST of ten of your favorites and see what the storytellers are doing and how they do it.)

I don’t read many short stories these days but I grew up compulsively reading Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies, and actively sought out stories by my favorite authors: Shirley Jackson, Daphne Du Maurier,  Ray Bradbury, Poe of course, and Stephen King. The ones that I love have that great high concept premise, which usually includes a huge twist.  I really think that the essence of a short story is the twist, and once you have that, you can set up the story with a basic three-act structure: You have someone who wants something very badly (The Act I setup) who is having trouble getting it (The Act II complications) and eventually DOESN’T get what they think and say want, but they get what they really need instead. (Which creates the Act III twist.)

Because of the restriction of length, often all a short story really does is take a premise and set it up (Set Up is generally just Act I of a novel or film) and pretty much cuts directly to the chase: the final battle and TWIST. The Edge of Seventeen was basically that set up and then the twist. As a matter of fact, when I actually sat down to write the first draft of the novel, I found I used most of the story almost directly as written as the first act! 

So with a short story, you have a beginning and an end, but not much of the vast middle section that comprises a full-length novel or film.

I think that’s why shorts are so seductive (and arguably good practice) to more beginning writers.  It’s pretty easy to write a first act.  It’s the middle that’s hard. (I may just have gotten myself in a world of trouble, we’ll see!)

Another thing I think a short has to deliver – every bit as much as a full-length novel does – is the genre EXPERIENCE (or maybe I’m just a little obsessed with this aspect of writing, these days).

I had no premise at all in mind when I was asked to do a story for Love is Murder. I said yes because – well, seriously! It’s not like I could turn this opportunity down – with that lineup of writers, I was going to do whatever it took.  But when I actually had to sit down and write something, I was in a very difficult place emotionally and I wasn’t feeling very romantic. Suspense I can do in my sleep, but love wasn’t the first thing on my mind. So I asked myself what would be a romantic escape, the kind of fantasy setting that I think really helps deliver the experience of romantic suspense? And the first thing that came to mind was my first trip to the Bahamas. We Left Coasters don’t generally do the Bahamas – we tend to go to the far closer paradise of Hawaii if we’re in the mood for an island, so the first time I was in those other islands it was truly an overwhelming experience.

I knew I could do the sensuality of that setting justice, and then I decided not to fight the emotional place that I was in, but rather use the experience of heartache and devastation as a jumping off point for the story. And once I’d put a wounded character into that lush setting, everything started coming alive – it’s just the magic of the process. I also took a huge hit of inspiration from the image of the Tarot Queen of Cups – that card was a touchstone for the main character, the Macguffin, and the whole story.

I layered water imagery and the theme of Atlantis and precious objects and art throughout, to make a kind of modern fairy tale (which I won’t talk too much about because it’s too easy to give away a short.). I did structure the story in three acts (I’d actually say that ALL stories are three acts, that’s what makes them stories), but I’m very aware that the first two acts of the short would be no more than a first act in a full length novel, and that the third act of the short would still be the third act of a novel – with many more twists and action, of course.

But I’m perfectly aware that I may just be looking at the structure of a short that way because it allows me to fit the longer-form ideas that I have into the format of a short. 

I know that there are others here who are far more experienced at writing shorts than I am, so I’d like to hear from you all. Do you read a lot of shorts? Do you write them?  How do you write them?  Is my “Act I set up, then cut to the Act III chase” resonating with you (as a reader OR a writer) or do you find yourself doing something completely different?


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11 thoughts on “Thriller 3: Love is Murder – the art of the short

  1. Tammy Cravit

    As a reader, I love reading short stories and especially love short story anthologies. It's so much fun to see a bunch of different writers together in one book – especially if the stories are linked by a common theme.

    As a writer, I don't tend to see short stories in the "Act I set up, then cut to the Act III chase" model, but then, I don't tend to try to fit long-form structure to a short story. In fact, usually when I write a short story, it's to experiment with some germ of an idea or aspect of a character that I don't perceive is meaty enough to hold up a longer story. The most recent short story I wrote was an attempt to play with the voice of one of the minor characters from my novels, for example. The second (in-progress) novel in my series is being told through multiple first-person narratives, and I used the short story to clarify one character's voice.

    I think I rarely write short fiction for the same reason I rarely write poetry: I just don't perceive myself as being possessed with the skill to be that economical with words, most of the time. But that's just me.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Tammy, that "germ of an idea or character that's not long enough to hold up to a longer story" – is something I hear from other writers, too. I get the concept of it, it makes total sense, but wow, I just don't think that way. I have random characters and situations in my mental storeroom, of course, but I will just let them sit there for years until they finally resolve themselves into a novel, or pop up as the perfect walk-on character.

  3. David Corbett

    Alex: I think your core advice is the key: Make a list. Find ten stories that knocked you over and reverse engineer them. Easier said than done, I realize, but that's the writing life.

    I'd have a hard time generalizing absolutely from the ten I think I'd choose — I'm always astonished by how clever, creative, innovative short stories can be. But you're right, the ending of a story, if it isn't exactly a twist, has to deliver an emotionally gratifying turn or a transformative revelation or decision, something suspected perhaps but not truly foreseen until that moment.

    Alice Adams famously described her typical short story structure as A-B-D-C-E: Action-Background-Development-Climax-Ending. I think her Development would stand in for Act 2, but it of course is not as extensive as it would be in a novel.

    I'm reading three collections right now, each of them not just instructive but brilliant: Bonnie Jo Campbell's AMERICAN SALVAGE, Donald Ray Pollack's KNOCKEMSTIFF, and Daniel Woodrell's THE OUTLAW ALBUM. I could spend a whole summer schooling myself from just those three books.

    Best of luck with LOVE IS MURDER.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks, David! I like the Adams formula because it starts with ACTION. Very filmic!

    I guess I should have listed some of my favorite shorts, it was just a crazy weekend.

    The ones that spring to mind instantly are the horrific "They Bite", by none other than Anthony Boucher, for whom the unpronounceable Bouchercon is named;"The Yellow Wallpaper" – even more horrific in a feminist kind of way, by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore; "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, to which The Hunger Games owes, well, just about everything. "The Birds" and any number of shorts by Daphne DuMaurier, she is just electrifying. Just about everything in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles. And Stephen King's "The Mist", really more of a short novel, but we've already established that I like long. In fact, every single one of my list (except, I think, The Lottery) are shorts that have been adapted into full-length movies, so it's pretty clear what my taste is.

  5. David Corbett

    It's often the case (or so one hears) that stories make better material for films than novels. Easier to build out then trim down to muscle and bone. One recent example is THE GREY, based on a short story by Ian McKenzie Jeffers, a film I didn't expect to enjoy as much as I did. Excellent.

    I've heard DuMaurier's stories are superb, and I have to look them up. Bradbury calls to mind Rod Serling, and what was The Twilight Zone but a showplace for brilliant short stories?

    As for A-B-D-C-E: I've seen novels structured that way. MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, in particular. Chapter One starts with the decisive action: The death of the father figure. Chapter Two is a (perhaps overlong) turn to the past to recount past events that inform the ties among the characters, and the ensuing chapters then proceed from the intro action to the climax and denouement.

  6. oh

    D, I think the "short stories make better films than novels" adage was more true when short stories were an absolute fucking art, back in the day. A day which paid short story authors a living wage for their efforts, I might add. Coincidence? I think not. (An older author friend told me what she was paid for a short story in the 60's and OH MY GOD. Seriously.)

    And since we're both rabid fans of MAD MEN – don't you love the subplot of Ken Cosgrove, the only truly sympathetic male character in the show besides the departed and lamented Salvatore… who is building a secret career as a SFF short writer?

    I think you'll love DuMaurier. I hope!

  7. Pari Noskin

    You always give me so much to think about in your posts. I sometimes can't even respond except to thank you.

    I also want to read more short stories, so I'm particularly glad for this discussion. I do hope more people comment as well . . .

  8. KDJames

    Alex, I'm laughing at the irony of your Friday post indignantly asking whether we'd pay $11-ish for an ebook and then turning right around and promoting just such a thing. That totally cracks me up. But I'm weird. As you know. (Yes, I am paying attention even if I don't always find time to comment.) (What? I've been busy.)

    To answer that question rather belatedly: for this book, with these writers, yes, I will pay that price. And I plan to dissect the hell out of every single story, just so you know. And then write it off on my tax return.

    I struggle with concise. I know, you're surprised to hear that. A certain agent recently posted a contest on her blog with the challenge to write a story in 100 words. And then she mandated what FIVE of them had to be. My first thought was "are you fucking kidding me? I can't even say hello in 100 words." But I gave it a try anyway. Because it's good to attempt the things you do badly, if only as an ego leveler. I am completely awed by those who can write short stories.

    I'm intrigued by both the Act I and a Twist concept and the ABCDE thing. I will sharpen my scalpel and see whether I can excarnate story skeletons from this collection. And maybe learn something.

    Thinking about this, it occurs to me that this is similar to the structure of some (not all) jokes. Setup and then payoff, with a twist. I think Bob Hope, among others, did this well. Or like these from recent @qikipedia tweets:

    Rick Astley asked to borrow my Pixar DVDs. I said "you can have Cars + Finding Nemo,but I'm never going to give you UP"


    How do you turn a duck into a soul singer? Put it in the microwave until its bill withers

    [Yes, this is why I sometimes stop myself from posting comments. What's that saying? If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to serve as a horrible warning. 😉 ]

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    KD, I thought everyone would pay 11.99 for Lee Child in whatever form. Seems like a steal to me….

    But also – you don't really think >I< set that price, do you? (And did you notice the hardcover is under $16? I was genuinely impressed. That's a deal, these days…)

    Where have you been, girl? I miss you when you don't speak up. I love the Bill Withers joke.

    I have to say, if someone asked ME to write a story in 100 words I'm afraid I would say something that started with "Fuck" and ended with "You". I did too much improv back in the day to improvise on demand. These days, if you don't want a novel from me, go away. But since you brought it up, you are now REQUIRED to post your 100-word story.

  10. KDJames

    Of course I know you didn't set the price! And I agree, it is a deal. Honestly, I'd pay far more for this particular collection. Just don't tell anyone, okay? Wait. What? Tell me you did not just say "11.99 for Lee Child in whatever form." Damn, girl. Is it hot in here?

    So you want my pathetic 100-word non-story, do you? It's on my blog, but since it's so short, here it is (with a brief intro). Oh, and look at that. It references a Lee Child-edited mystery anthology titled VENGEANCE (which I also purchased). How much irony is too much in one day? Never enough, apparently.

    To be completely serious (for a change), I had a great deal of fun writing this.


    So what was the challenge? Tell a story in 100 or fewer words, and you must include the following words (author names from the anthology):


    Here it is:

    The man pacing the narrow hallway outside the courtroom went still when he saw us approach. “Karin says you’re pleading guilty.”

    I nodded, once. “Yes.”

    “Like a meek little lamb being led to slaughter.” His scorn was sharp with anger. And fear.

    “I broke the law.”

    “Damnit, Mom, don’t twist the truth. It was an accident–”

    “A child died, Lee.”

    “–and the parents just want vengeance!”

    I reached up, awkward with the restraints, and slowly brushed the lone tear off his cheek.

    “So would I,” I said.

    The deputy at the door cleared his throat. “It’s time.”

  11. PD Martin

    Hi Alex. Great insight into the short writing process. Like you, I've only written shorts 'to spec' and don't find it particularly easy. I'm also not a big fan of them as a reader! I need something with more meat on the bones 🙂

    KD, love the short, short!

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