Saturday, 16 April 2011

Short and Sweet: Some Ideas About Short Stories

I don't normally 'do' short stories. Although, to be even fair, I did write an awful lot of them when I was at school - ah-em - more years ago than I care to remember; and, to be even fairer, I wasn't that bad at them either. However, with my writing time being so limited over the past few years, I have only been able to concentrate on the job in hand (ie my WIP). Short stories, like Twitter and, sadly, my blogging, are something I haven't had much time for. However, with both kids at school, I hope I can change that and, in the past few weeks, I've not only been writing but thinking about the short story in quite some detail. So I thought I might throw a few ideas out there in case anyone else is thinking of picking up their pen. And, even after (cough, cough, splutter - insert the number of years since you had to write one at school) I promise it is well worth your while - and not just because there are far more competitions out there for unpublished short story writers than novelists.

Point 1 The Short Story Is Not a Mini-novel

The raison d'etre of the short story is that it is short. Natch. In fact, shorties for publication these days seem to be around 1500 - 2500 words max. There is even the fashion these days for so-called 'flash fiction' which is 1000 words or less and, at its most reductivist, no more than 55. This is obviously very, very short.

However, because they are both written in continuous, narrative text, it is tempting to think of the short story as being the novel's little brother - but this is not the case. They are completely separate art forms and what works in one should not necessarily be sauce for the gander.

Or something.

In terms of screen space, 2500 words on my laptop works out as four and a half pages single-spaced. That is not a lot of time to introduce characters, arcs, plot, setting, ambiance and a twist in the tale. It's not even as long as an average chapter in one of my novels. In my humble opinion, therefore, if you do find yourself staring down the barrel of this sort of wordcount, you are probably better off abandoning the idea of a full 'story' and looking instead at conjuring up a narrative linked to one (at most two) events. There simply won't be room to do justice to anything else. One of my favourite short story writers is Saki, who can write a gripping, memorable and gobsmacking story in very few words simply by relying on the power of atmosphere, suggestion and a completely killer twist. (Try 'The Reticence of Lady Anne at

When planning my most recent shortie, I made myself imagine a single narrative event and then attempted to write that event in such a way that the outcome was (hopefully) unpredictable till the end of the story. This does mean that as a writer you have to be careful when you select your core event that it has the potential of heading in more than one direction. An alternative is to work very hard to build the reader's expectation in one direction - and then throw in an unforeseen twist at the end a la Saki.

Point 2 You Will Need to Bring All your Writing Expertise to Bear Upon The Story, Even If It's Short

A short story is not necessarily an easy option. Personally, I think 100k novel is a darn sight more simple to write than at 2,500 short story, but maybe that's just me. Even though it is short, you will still need living, breathing characters; a sense of place; conflict; atmosphere; and a beginning, middle and end - and you won't have much room for any of them. However, remember that beginnings, middles and ends don't necessarily mean you have to write about a series of related events: they can relate to character development, revelations about the setting or situation, or even changes in the understanding or point of view of the main character - all you need are a logical progression of ideas, some conflict and an eventual conclusion. It also helps if you think through the arcs of all your characters - no matter how small the part they play. Arcs give drive and structure to your story and can quickly deliver a strong sense of character - when space is limited, two-for-one deals like this are the writer's friend. Grab with both hands!

You will also be using a proportionally greater amount of your word count on building atmosphere and situation than you would in a novel. Again, make those words work hard for you: build up your atmosphere but then also use that atmosphere to feed into your conflicts, characters and storyline.

Point 3 Try And Focus On a Single Idea, Theme or Image

This can be exceptionally powerful when space is short, particularly if you are using more than one event to form the structure of your plot. Themes and images will help to keep the story as a dynamic, coherent whole and you can use them as foils to throw other characters and events into sharp relief. One short story which has stayed with me since school is DH Lawrence's The Odour of Chrysanthemums ( where the flowers weave in an out of the story as they have done through the main character's life, linking together the past and the present. Although the story involves a number of themes and exchanges, the chrysanthemums link the narrative together flawlessly.

Focusing on 'one' idea may sound limiting but it is in fact highly flexible. One of the great advantages I believe the short story has over the novel is that movement in time and space is much easier in the short story - provided you always return to a central 'anchoring' point. You can examine a couple's past, look at hopes a character might have for the future, flit hither and yon in the mind of a first person narrator - all in a way that would feel clumsy and out of place in a novel; the only requirement is that you always return to that central idea. (And then, if you are Saki, twist it at the end and turn the whole story through 180 degrees and have everybody say how completely brilliant you are).

Finally, if like me you prefer the opening up of possibilities rather than the tying up of threads as an ending, remember that it is considered perfectly acceptable (and actually, quite intellectual) to leave the end enigmatically open. This is great for two reasons: firstly, it allows the reader to chose their own ending (readers like this!) and, secondly and cynically, it saves you valuable words that you could use elsewhere in your story.

So go on, get writing. It's only four pages.


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