I was asked to write some notes recently on short story writing. Having thought long and hard about what are generally considered to be successful short stories, I thought I’d share my thoughts with you. I’ve written the notes under different headings. There are some stories of mine on other pages.
Length. Short story competitions usually ask for work under 2,500 words, but individual contests vary. Flash fiction is very short fiction, under 250 words or half a page. A novella will be between 15-20 thousand words, and a novel betwen 80-100 thousand.
However, filmmakers and screenwriters like short fiction because it’s condensed, to the point and it’s easier to extend a good short story than to cut down Gone With The Wind or War and Peace, without leaving out important details.
So if you have a story in mind and you think it might take 2,500 words, every word has to count. This brings me to our second point:
Characters. Keep to a small and memorable cast of characters. I think five is about the limit. Too many and it becomes a saga. Herman Melville’s excellent short story The Scrivener has two main and one ancillory character. Meeting in Samorra by Somerset Maughn and copied by others, has three – Death, the Master and the Servant. Choose your characters carefully! Make them stand out from one another and give them individual voices. First person narratives are immediate and grab the reader’s attention at once. If we identify with the main character, we’re more likely to read on, so your main character should be believable.
Plot The traditional wisdom is that there should be a beginning, middle and end to your story. However, clever writers often subvert this. The funeral is sometimes the start of the story, which then goes backwards in time to events at the start of the story (if you see what I mean), or the ending comes as a surprise. Usually the plot will follow a course like this: Characters have some conflict, challenge or dificulty to to resolve, embark on a course of action and await the results. The bit of the story where they wrestle with the task (kill the dragon, confront the murderer, find the treasure) is the climax of the story, and this can come anywhere, though most often in the middle of the story. Boy meets girl/boy loses girl/couple reunited after many trials, is still a bestseller.
Setting For some authors, the setting is as important as the characters or plot. I’m thinking of the Congo, described by Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible, or Newfoundland described by Annie Proux in The Shipping News. For other authors, it’s simply sketched in and the reader fills in the details. Generally it’s good to stay with what you know, so if you do travel about, take a notebook with you, then you’ll have the details of that hotel you stayed at on the wasteland near Athens Airport, you’ll remember the fact that snakes lurked in the long grass and the owner planted zinnias along the boundary and hawkmoths visited them every night… See? I got quite carried away just re reading my old notebooks! The details are important.
Point of view Sometimes known as P.O.V., this answers the question: Through whose eyes are we seeing the action? Who is the narrator? Does the P.O.V move around? Who is telling this story? The Poisonwood Bible, for example, is narrated by each character in turn. In a short story the omnipotent narrator, like a puppet-master, often oversees all the action, or it may be a first person narrative, or one where the reader inhabits the head of the main character. If you read Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the reader is asked to identify with a man who has inexplicably turned into a cockroach overnight. We feel pity for his predicament.
Beginnings and endings: The first few sentence are important. They should hook the reader into the story and make them want to know what happens next. Choose some short stories to read and make a note of the opening sentences. What intrigued you or put you off reading more? An ending should add a sense of completeness to the story, I think, but rules are made to be broken and a sudden, unexpected, incomplete or tragic ending can also work well.
Starting points for stories: If, as I do, you collect books with odd facts, anecdotes and overheard snatches of conversation, you’ll never be short of material. Go to places you don’t normally visit. Make notes. Talk to people. I’m thinking of greyhound tracks, bikers’ cafes, fairgrounds, antique auctions, stations – anywhere where people are doing something a little different and you’ll hear stories. Ask if you can write about what they tell you – people rarely refuse. Or you can change all identifying details and keep the bones of the story, though it’s good manners to acknowledge the source. Most stories are a mixture of the writer’s real experience and stuff s/he’s invented.
Asking the question What if…..? can be fruitful as well. What if Aladdin had rubbed the magic lamp and the Genie appeared but was really lazy and couldn’t be arsed? What if Red Ridng Hood’s Granny kept a shotgun by the bed? What if the Three Little Pigs told the Wolf to come in – no, let’s not go there!
More to come: where to submit short stories.
See you later!