If you like books, there is a big chance you read them whenever you have time. But for many adults, the world of “adulting” is filled to the brim with everything except free time. Most people are either working full time, enrolled in a university program, or are taking care of their family. Maybe even a combination of these things. Sounds like a packed schedule!
In fact, recent survey results revealed that the average American only gets about 4 and a half hours of free time per week! There is a probable chance that, even though you’d like to consider yourself an avid reader, you simply do not have the spare time to read as many books as you would like.
(You can check out the study here if you’re interested in learning more about it)
Or perhaps you are not the type who likes to read. Maybe you dislike the commitment of picking up a novel series, or even a book more than 100 pages.
Whatever your reasoning is for not picking up a thick piece of literature, it’s okay. It is exactly why many people turn to adult short stories instead!
For starters, what is a short story? How is it different from a novella?
Well, to distinguish the two, the average short story lies between 1000-7000 words give or take. A novella is a bit longer than this, but still falls short of reaching the length of a full fledged novel. The average novel sits at about 80,000 words.
So in terms of shortest to longest:
Short story > Novella > Novel
What makes a short story better than its brothers? To quote Neil Gaiman, a short story writer:
“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”
When you think of a short story, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Many would say children’s books. Although children’s books can technically be considered short stories, it simply does not represent the whole platter. On the other side of the short story umbrella lives the adult short story genre. It is entirely different than work meant exclusively for children.
What distinguishes the two? For starters, children’s short stories mostly offer family-friendly ideas, morals, and overarching themes. There is definitely nothing wrong with this, but it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the content that will satisfy an adult audience.
Not everybody wants to read a children’s story with a soft and happy ending, and this is exactly why the adult genre of short stories was invented in the first place!
To eliminate a common misconception, the term “adult” in the phrase “adult short stories” does not signify that the work will be an erotica. It can be, if desired. But not always! The adult short story can platter a tale from any genre, whether it be a murder mystery, a drama, or anything in between.
Short stories have definite benefits from a reader’s perspective, especially for those who don’t have a lot of time or will to read thicker books, but what about from a writer’s perspective?
Some writers like to make their work for adults simply so they can sprinkle in cussing, mature situations, and perhaps any “adult” scenes as they see fit. They don’t have to worry about censoring their writing for children who are too young to be learning about these things.
(Side note: Films often do the same thing. I’ve seen many movies that were rated “R” simply because they used the “f word” more than once.)
This brings me to my next point. One of the many benefits of adult short stories is that authors have the opportunity to tackle themes that children and teens may not understand.
One prime example is Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. The work is interpreted to revolve around a woman who is considering an abortion. A young child, in most cases, will not understand this idea and completely miss the impact of the story.
Secondly, the story starts off in a bar in Spain, and the main characters begin the narrative by drinking alcohol. This is the defining moment in the work where it clearly states: “My target audience is adults.”
When a writer is in the planning stage of a piece of work, they will eventually have to choose their target audience. Some writers might not consciously think about it, but it inevitably sets the stage for how the story will be written. It also entails how vulgar it will be, and how deeply it will explore various mature themes.
When a writer decides that their target audience will be the adult population, they can focus on the medium for expressing their ideas. They can zoom in on adult-oriented themes without worrying if the younger audience will understand or “relate” to its core messages.
Another good example of this is William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily. It focuses on a woman named Emily who is unable to change with the times. She cannot accept that society moves forward and progresses. Her character is a clear metaphor for the American south after the Civil War. During this time, many southerners did not want to accept the fact that they lost the war.
Here is an excerpt from the story:
“Then the newer generation became the backbone and the spirit of the town, and the painting pupils grew up and fell away and did not send their children to her with boxes of color and tedious brushes and pictures cut from the ladies’ magazines. The front door closed upon the last one and remained closed for good. When the town got free postal delivery, Miss Emily alone refused to let them fasten the metal numbers above her door and attach a mailbox to it. She would not listen to them” (Faulkner).
A child might be able to understand the literal meaning of events that are happening in the story, however it is doubtful that they will be able to grasp the underlying metaphor.
Another good example is The Fourth State of Matter, written by Jo Ann Beard. Her story is a creative combination of a personal narrative and a short story. The writing is easy to comprehend, beautifully crafted, and out of all the short stories I have mentioned thus far, this one is my favorite.
Jo Ann Beard doesn’t just tell the readers what happens, she dances around it with her deceptive prose. She makes us forget about the foreshadowed tragedy by making the readers concerned for her dog and her marriage.
When the tragedy eventually does strike, we are caught off guard! Somehow, it comes out of nowhere, even though it was foreshadowed multiple times throughout the story.
If you haven’t read The Fourth State of Matter, it is a definite masterpiece.
Short stories don’t have to be serious, though. There are plenty of short stories for adults that take on a more lighthearted angle compared to the works above.
A Cosmopolite in a Cafe by O. Henry is a good example. It follows the narrator as he speaks with who he believes is a cosmopolitan. The cosmopolitan is a renowned world traveler, and has kissed the dirt in every corner of the world. He believes that one’s hometown has no significance to the way one acts, and detests stereotypes with a burning passion.
Their drabble goes back and forth on why they disagree with each other, but the work does not end on a somber tone compared to the other short stories I mentioned.
Furthermore, short stories are not exclusive to the literary genre. Many short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, for example, are satirical and reflect his dark sense of humor.
Do writers prefer writing short stories over novels or novellas? Many writers find the task of writing a novel or novella as daunting, and would much rather hone their skills through short stories instead.
However, other writers believe that writing an short story can actually be harder than writing a novel or a novella.
Why is writing a short story so hard?
First of all, short stories are short. It’s in the name! If someone has a novel idea that includes an entire cast of characters and a multi arc plot line, chances are it’s going to be hard to condense all of those ideas down into less than 7000 words.
Furthermore, it can be harder to develop characters effectively without the entire arc structure of a novella or novel. Incorporating character backstories and motivations is definitely a harder feat with more characters in play.
But this very reason is exactly why many people prefer to write short stories in the first place. Not to say that writing a short story is any less work. Whether your story length is short or long, the process of conveying your ideas to the audience is a tough job.
But with less characters, it is generally easier to focus on the ones that matter. This is why many short stories only have 1-3 characters on average.
With all of this being said, however, it all depends on one’s preferences as a writer. Some prefer to briefly explore a concept or idea, while others like to completely dive into the waters with a full length novel.
Neither one is better or worse than the other. Certain concepts are better executed through the medium of short story, while some are more suited for a novel.
It is almost like a work of art. Notice the difference between painting an apple with charcoal versus watercolor paints. If an artist wants to express the color and vibrancy of the red apple, they would have an easier time using watercolors than charcoal.
But you can still draw the apple with charcoal and it would still look good, so neither of them are better are worse than one another.
It all depends on what you’re trying to do.
If you’re looking for a loose guide on how to actually write an adult short story of your own, look no further. The process can be broken down into a few simple steps.
- Think about why you want to create an adult short story. What themes are you trying to tackle? What will set it apart from other works in the genre? What factors make your work “adult?”
- Create your protagonist and other essential characters. What kind of person will they be? Maybe they aren’t even a person. Maybe they’re an alien. What do they want? What is their overarching goal? Try to stick with just a few characters at most.
- Once you have the questions above mapped out, it’s time to start creating your plot. Remember, short stories are different from novels. They wrap up a lot faster. How will your character reach the “X” on their treasure map; In other words, how will they reach their goal? What trials and tribulations will they face along the way?
- Be wary of how much filler you add. Unnecessary details can make your word count much higher than it needs to be.
- Make sure your story arcs are the appropriate length. You want to keep your story a “short-story.” Your arc should be relatively short, but still give enough depth for the readers to properly grasp the scenes.
- What have your characters learned by the end of the story? How will everything wrap up? In what ways have your characters changed, and in what ways have they stayed the same?
With these six steps in mind, creating a short story can definitely offer its fair share of triumphs and frustrations. These feelings are commonplace in the writing world, whether you’re new here or not.
The world of adult short stories is a vast sea of compelling literature that should not be overlooked simply for its length. In the writing world, their impact is just as important and influential as full works of literature.
Renner, Ben. “Survey: Average Person Has Just 4 Hours, 26 Minutes Of Free Time Per Week!”
Study Finds, 6 Apr. 2019, https://www.studyfinds.org/survey-average-american-free-time-week/.
Faulkner, William. A Rose for Emily: William Faulkner. Harcourt College Publishers, 2000.