The advice to ‘make every word count’ is relevant to all writing, but especially short fiction. Easy to say, but how exactly do we achieve this?

Tip 1: Use punctuation

Colons, semi-colons and dashes can be used to replace extraneous words, and give your piece a better sense of flow. Consider the following:

I dropped Rosie off at the crèche. Well, I say I dropped her off, but what really happened was I stood by while the staff prised her off my leg, one sticky finger at a time.

Now this…

I dropped Rosie off at the crèche; or rather, I stood by while they prised her off my leg, one sticky finger at a time.

By using a semi-colon to lead into another sentence, the second version is eleven words shorter than the first, but still retains the same information – and I prefer it. Eleven words is a lot when you are working to a limit of only 500 words!

Tip 2: Use description effectively

Why use ten words when one will do? Because it is so important to create a picture in the reader’s mind. Of course, this advice will probably increase your word count – but if you don’t engage your reader (or the judges of the competition) those precious words will be wasted anyway. Find the few concrete details that really bring the scene to life. Consider the following:

The kitchen was filthy.

OK, a filthy kitchen. We all know what they look like. Or do we? The problem: it’s too generic. It doesn’t show how the kitchen is filthy to the narrator. It’s only four words, but…

My shoes stuck to the lino; above the bin the wall was brown from flung tea bags; globules of grease dripped down the yellow-stained tiles.

This is 21 words longer, but makes you go ‘Yuk!’ and feel like you’re really there. Never miss an opportunity to replace generic description with concrete detail.

Tip 3: Use dialogue

Many people avoid dialogue in short-short stories because they think it takes up too much room. Au contraire! Dialogue is an excellent vehicle for exposition, for moving the story forward, and for characterisation. Consider the following:

‘Why aren’t you excited?’ said Elizabeth.

‘I’ve been through it all before, haven’t I?’ Jane picked up her bouquet. ‘I’m not even sure why I’m doing this.’

Elizabeth sighed impatiently at her daughter. ‘Because you love him, I suppose!’

‘Yes, but…’

From this short conversation we can extrapolate the following: Jane is getting married today, probably for the second time, and she is having second thoughts. Her lack of enthusiasm is obvious to her mother, who is not the most understanding or patient of women and is probably not going to give Jane a chance to back out now. There are intriguing questions here: What happened in Jane’s first marriage? Why isn’t she sure of her new husband-to-be? Why is her mother so brusque with her? It would have taken a lot of narrative to get all this in; here it is presented in just 41 words.

Use these tips to make your short fiction pack a punch that competition judges can’t ignore. And don’t forget to come back and tell me how you got on!