Short on words, long on lasting impressions. This I think is what we're looking for in a good short story. That they drill down deep into our imagination, suggesting themes, vividly realised worlds, character secrets, at a level somewhere below the surface of the text. So we the readers are drawn into using all our intuitive resources to excavate their meanings. And when we find ourselves down there, the emotional clout of the story is so much more because we have constructed it with our own memories and feelings, our guesses and hidden knowledge of the human heart.
Well that is what we hope for. I'll admit I find short stories devilishly difficult to write but worth the hard sweat when I finally make it through my usual fog of doubt to shape something that works. If there was a formula, I'd apply it every time but each story is a new journey with its own demands. However I'm always more than happy to read other author's tips.
Jacob Ross is a man who knows his craft and in his introduction to the Peepal Tree Press anthology Closure, says: 'Humans have always valued the short story as a way to make sense of the world, and their place in it.' I love reading classic short story writers like Raymond Carver or Anton Chekhov but reading contemporary anthologies is key to learning how storywriters are making sense of OUR world right now. And that means language and form are being stretched in new ways to evoke that.
Award-winning writer Rebecca Burns offers her own tips in a forthcoming anthology by Dahlia Publishing. Burns was a judge for the Leicester Writes Short Story competition 2017. She identifies several winning factors in these stories: the ability to 'make time stand still'; 'a killer first line' or alternatively plunging the reader into 'a fully-formed, fleshed-out world'. She addresses the crucial economy of the short fiction form - in maybe 2000 words, the writer needs to find ONE moment that can illuminate all the pressures acting on a character. And vivid settings and rich backstories need to be sketched in just a few sentences.
Since I have two stories being published this month in different anthologies, I'm reflecting on what I've learnt so far about crafting these short-form tales.
- I'd agree with Burns about the compression of storytelling. And I think my own stories have benefitted from getting shorter so that my focus has to get much clearer. My story in the Leicester Writes anthology is just 1,705 words. That took a lot of whittling down but the editing is like sculpting the story with a chisel to get a sharper, cleaner outline. This is where the sweat and tears comes in.
- That 'moment' has to reveal the main character's essence but the story also needs a click, a definite sense that at one point something has changed or been realised. It mustn't be so elusive that the reader misses that heartbeat. I don't want my reader to feel the ending was too obvious but neither do I want them to wonder what on earth it was all about.
- We're working in miniature here, like crafting jewellery. Or more like the jewellery-box because structure is the mechanism of a short story. It has to deliver. In my story 'Switching Off the Metronome' I gave myself 4 scenes to plot the twists and turns of a crime-story. I was delighted then that judge Nina Stibbe commented on how the narrator wrong-footed her as to the guilt of my protagonist: 'She leads you this way, then that ... (until) with only a few sentences to go, she's switched it all around again. Brilliant. Powerful.'
- None of this matters if you haven't got a compelling character with something to lose at the centre. I don't mean your protagonist has to be sympathetic. In my 'Metronome' story, the narrator may or may not have committed a terrible crime. But short fiction brings us very close in to a character and unpeels tightly-wrapped layers. I do character quizzes and such-like to learn what their values and quirks are, before and sometimes during the writing. A local writer I much admire, Bead Roberts, used to say; 'Put your characters up a tree and stone them.' This is when we really see what they're made of.
- Then it's a case of rummaging through the tool-box of story. Setting is often a good trigger for me in bringing a story to life. 'Metronome' is partly set in a police-station - I borrowed freely from TV dramas and a few Google pics. And I wanted to capture the atmosphere of those tense police interrogations in my dialogue. But in another story 'Red Feet', inspired by the fairy-tale 'Red Shoes', it was more about weaving a pattern of imagery that played with the colour and dance motifs and Gothic allusions. Different elements come to the fore in different stories.
Anyway I'm rather pleased to find my characters in such interesting company in these two anthologies. The Leicester Writes Short Story Prize 2017 Anthology Vol. 1 will be launched on Friday 30th June at the 2017 Leicester Writes festival. If you're a writer of short fiction, do yourself a favour and book in for the workshop with prizewinner Catherine Menon at 3pm earlier that day.
My other story appears in the recently released Mrs Rochester's Attic, a gorgeously Gothic anthology from Mantle Lane Press. Billed as 'Tales of Madness, Strange Love and Deep, Dark Secrets', it's available in hardcopy, Kindle edition or as an MP3 download for the ridiculous price of 79p. Now that's really cutting it fine.