The short story

A discussion on a forum I frequent, Romance Divas, prompted me to finally put my thoughts together on the topic of short fiction in the romance genre. Then I thought, I should bring that discussion here as it’s a pertinent topic for Science Fiction. This is what I originally posted in answer to the question, How short is too short (from Jeannie Lin):

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First, I think more and more romance readers like the novella. It gives them a satisfying read without having to invest the time of a full novel length. & I think this will grow with the expansion of the ebook industry. There just hasn’t been a reliable market for short stories in romance until digital pubs came along.

But I also think short fiction isn’t quite as accepted as it is in the Lit and SciFi communities. Coming from reading many of those types of stories, I’m used to short stories that introduce a world in order to present a question, or one conflict that gets resolved while leaving other things in the air, or maybe it’s slice of life. I don’t think that works well for Romance. I think a romance reader wants to get the full fledged romance and feel confident that they’ve gotten the entire story.

I’ve gotten a range of feedback on my short stories. Much of the time, even when the reviews are positive, they say they want more of the world because in mine, I do quite a bit of world-building. I’m starting to wonder if world-building should be a little lighter in a short. I don’t know, though. Some of my favorite Scifi stories are short & packed with world-building. It’s a glimpse of a rich world that sets my imagination going.

I guess what I’m saying is there’s a balance between characterization/conflict/world-building that’s a difficult thing to do in a short story & still satisfy the romance reader. I think making sure the buyer knows the length is critically important, but I also think that balance is just as important, because short or not, the reader needs to feel like they got the entire story.

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What do you think about short stories? And within the Romance genre? Am I way off base here? Or, are the expectations within the Romance genre different? What makes for a satisfying short story read?

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9 comments

  1. The main criticism I’ve come across with Romance shorts is that the couple has to fall in love pretty quickly, and the reader feels short-changed. There’s only so much tension/conflict/anticipation you can build into a short story. With a SFR short, the world-building eats into that “getting to know you” time even more, so the writer has to be especially skilled at both.

    It’s an interesting topic, Ella. I usually get the same kind of feedback you mentioned–good story, needs to be longer. But with SFR, you really don’t want to give the world-building short shrift either. I must admit, I’ve had to settle for romantic elements in my SF as opposed to a full-on romance taking centre stage. I haven’t figured out how to satisfy both at the same time.

  2. I agree with you about how difficult it is to maintain the balance. Granted, I don’t write SFR, but my PNR and FR can be heavy-handed with world building, and that takes away from character development (for me) in a short. It’s why I’ve yet to write a novella or short I would allow to be published. I can’t maintain the balance in a way that satisfies me–so I assume it would leave my readers wanting as well.

    I think, in a sci fi short, you have that room for world building. When you toss in romance, which is what readers want to be your focal point, you lose a lot of space. In those cases, lighter world building might be your best option.

    1. I have read a few authors who purposely leave the world vague around the characters. The world-building is intentionally light. I find I like those as much as the heavier lifting ones because it’s intriguing in its own way.

  3. Robert, that’s an interesting thought. I’ve also thought that in short, the romance needs to hit the ground running (reunion romance, mid-relationship, etc) or go romantic or HFN (happy for now). Because I think you’re right, SFR does need that rich world-building. I do think a HFN romance is satisfactory. Especially forsomeone like me. As a reader, I’ll find a happy ending if you give me the room to imagine it. I just read Deus Ex: Icarus Effect by James Swallow. This is squarely in the SF camp & I couldn’t even claim it to have romantic elements. But the ending does give me the room to imagine a happy ending in sight for the hinted at relationship. I choose to decide they’ll get that HEA.

  4. Sci-Fi’s a tough one for short stories. When it works, it works (“A Sound of Thunder” comes to mind). When it doesn’t, it’s a confusing mess.

    There is a middle ground, though — short stories written in an established SF universe. Those usually work out OK, because you’re aiming for fans of that universe, and the worldbuilding has mostly been done for you.

  5. I think this is why I make sure my SFR shorts are a minimum of 35K words. It seems enough to build the world up a bit and allow the relationship to build. Since my books are SF erotic romance I also have a steep sensual arc which allows for more intimate contact sooner, and IMO, sex always leads to emotion which shortens the relationship arc. Of course I often get the – it should have been longer – comments, but I think that since I write a series (and a series of fantasy erotic romance shorts) some of the questions get answered as the series progresses. I’ve had one person demand to know what was happening with the treaty after reading Alien Revealed. Those are the fun questions because you can say – read book 2! LOL Of course this CAN lead to physical threats… 😉

  6. I think an SFR short story is an extremely tall order. It can be done, however. I offer Ann Aguirre’s short story, “Still We Live,’ as evidence.

    http://www.annaguirre.com/extras/free-reads/still-we-live/

    I don’t know the history of this story, but the fact that it’s offered as a free read, rather than in a publication is curious. Perhaps it’s even harder to sell these stories than it is to write them?

  7. It’s tough, that’s for sure. My recent release is a short, too, although I did purposely leave the world building a little light, the biggest complaints thus far have been it should probably have been a novel. Oh well. This was the shortest thing I’d tried writing up to this point, so that in itself was a challenge. Even so, my editor ended up having me add about 8K words to the finished product! Honestly, though, I think the hardest part is making the characters fall in love quickly and believably, and sci-fi or not, that’s a pitfall in ANY romance short story or novella. Maybe the answer is to set up a novel-length first, to properly set up the world, then have subsequent shorts about the people in that world.

  8. Holly J. Bauer · · Reply

    “But I also think short fiction isn’t quite as accepted as it is in the Lit and SciFi communities.”

    Maybe this is because I’m old, but have you forgotten the SF mags like Analog, Galaxy,
    Omni, Fantasy and Science Fiction, etc. which were all short stories? Not to mention how many authors got their start in this format but later went on to pen full-length works. This “route” helped many a SF/F writer hone their craft. I personally feel that the ebook format is for romance writers what the pulp mags were for SF/F writers. Just an opinion.

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