Writing short stories is what we did in class at school, and we no doubt avidly read short stories as children in our favourite genres or in collections by our favourite authors. I’ve still got some of my favourites on my bookshelf; such was their power over me and my imagination. Then later on in life, when taking up writing ourselves, we probably learned that the short story form is considered the most excellent and testing form for honing your writer’s skills when learning the craft. My own relationship with short stories is a wee bit conflicted, primarily through what I will call ‘The Writer’s Rulebook’ construct, as represented within a multitude of ‘how to write’ books and online articles packed with advice and tips. With regard to short story writing, there are many contemporary shoulds and shouldn’ts which apply to the short story. One example is the ideal length of a short story technically being designated as anything from 1000 to 7,500 words. It probably won’t surprise those of you who know me a little, that my own inclination would veer towards lengthy short stories of easily over 3000 words. Yet the true testing length of a short story is deemed to be 1,500 words, this length showcasing brevity, succinctness, and dramatic impact, and which most easily fits the word count guidelines and conditions for submitting your stories to literary magazines and competitions. And this is why many writers do write short stories, to prove themselves in literary circles and because they are told that winning prizes is good for a writers cv, and that it gives them more gravitas with agents and publishers. So take note ;>)
But let’s take a look at what I was taught on my writing courses and what is generally accepted as good practice for writing short stories (much of which still applies to other genres of fiction and non-fiction, but on a larger scale)
Ideal qualities of a short story:
The Short Story essence with should’s and shouldn’ts is:
It should get off to a fast start
It should have a limited number of characters and scenes
It should begin as close to the conclusion/end as possible
It should deal with just one problem
It should describe only the details necessary to understand the situation
It should cover a short time period – such as an afternoon or a day
It should use the basic fundamental elements of chance, contrast and change
You shouldn’t flashbacks or back-story after the climax of the story
You shouldn’t’ use acts of God within the story instead of human agency – it cheats the reader
The classic basic structure of the dramatic arc of the short story
A hook at the very beginning for the reader – a question or a problem, to engage the reader so they must read on to find out more. Sometimes writers are advised to begin ‘in media res’, which means in the middle of the action. Sometimes we are advised to begin with dialogue.
Personal or interpersonal conflict going on with characters. Readers love problems, because we all have them in our own lives. If there’s no trouble or conflict, then there’s no story – a simple but stunning fact.
Exposition – the explanation of where we are and what is going on with any bit of back-story or flashbacks necessary for understanding.
Complications – where the problems come in, or more problems compound the first one. Conflict is piled up like a stack of heavy books balanced on the head of the poor struggling character. Contrasts can be used here to good effect – between people or circumstances. For complications, think conflict and contrast.
Transition – there are changes in the action going on, a joining of scenes or characters engaging in dialogue. Maybe the use of a symbolic image to link scenes together. A building of tension within the transition.
The turning point or climax – the tension is released through a confrontation or revelation, where there is no coming back from. A kind of ‘things will never be the same again’ scenario. A value shift for the character from good to bad, or bad to good. It can be tiny and yet so significant. It can be a reversal of power, of mood, of fortune or status. It can be a decision, a recognition, or a disclosure…you get the idea.
Falling action – how the character deals with the climax events in their actions or thinking afterwards.
Resolution –the value, at this point, should be better or worse for the character than at the beginning of the story. The ending can be open, with the reader having to determine the meaning, or a closed one where there is a clear outcome. The ending should satisfy, with some hints of progression beyond the story’s formal ending in time.
(at school all this was simply a beginning, a middle, and an end)
I picked up the following points somewhere, which I think are wonderfully valid to bear in mind when writing short stories:
Good stories show moments of change or transformation.
They capture people at heightened times of conflict and emotion.
Themes can be challenging to add power to the story.
Good stories are unnerving and linger in the mind of the reader afterwards, provoking contemplation or concern.
(these points helped me write two short stories which I was particulary happy with – the word unnerving got me going!)
I’ll just drop in a few more I like:
A sense of present, past and future will give depth and texture to a story.
Maybe try some foreshadowing, where a hint/clue is given of future dramatic outcomes.
A combination of active intense scenes and passive resting contemplative scenes – think of watching a film for this rhythm of active and passive.
Also from film techniques, the use of close-ups and long shots in your description for visual variety.
Power shifts between characters can be really effective.
Choose a setting which enhances the mood or atmosphere of the story (sometimes a really underestimated feature).
As you will know, there is so much more.But does having so many rules and guidelines actually help you get going? I don’t think so… Just think of a situation, a dilemma, or a character or even a title, and you can take it from there.
My own relationship with short stories has changed over the last few years. I don’t enter competitions anymore because I felt, well, that there was too much competition, but also in my reading of stories in a couple of literary magazines, I was seeing titles and reading stories which looked to me as if they were trying to be too clever and enigmatic, but which were actually turning me right off. So I thought, well if this is what short story writing has to be for the literary circles, then I’m never going to fit in, and it simply isn’t me. The middle-aged me also decided that I didn’t want to jump through other people’s hoops in my quest for writer’s validation.
So how do I feel now? Well, amongst other authors, I’ve read many Stephen King short stories which I have loved. Their length has varied enormously, but in the main they are the lengths I’m fond of writing myself. Many move rapidly through time, many have quite a few characters, and many have big things and big changes happening. Such writers don’t follow the literary rules of length and ideal themes and presentations, yet the classic dramatic shaping as described above is always still there. And isn’t that really what counts? Isn’t that basic structure what has survived the test of time? Right from Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood through to Lovecraft’s horror stories and Poe’s mysteries, to Hemmingway’s gritty human nature themes. So why be confined by too many rules? And if you’re not writing for competitions or magazines, then you have the freedom to write as you want. Build a collection, publish an anthology of your own stories, as I think I will at some point. Will there be the prerequisite conceptual link? Maybe there will. Maybe there won’t. Who really cares? Certainly not the writer, and I don’t believe the reader would either.
If you are interested in reading one of my stories, here is a pdf of a short story I wrote a few years ago, called The Psychologist It does follow most of the Writer’s Rulebook conventions, apart from the word count ;>) – so be warned, it’s over 4000 words. You’ll need a cup of tea!
(pic from pixabay)