How To Write A Short Story Part 2

Reading & Writing


I thought I’d put these three posts together to save you hunting about for them on the blog, so here’s part two.

Bad stories get published; it’s a shock, but they appear regularly in collections and small press, usually because lazy editors call their mates. The system is not a meritocracy – if an editor somewhere sees an audience for a terrible book, it will be published. You don’t write to please the reader, you write to please yourself  and a publisher, who will present your book in an acquisitions meeting and promote you if the time is right.

You have to accept that your work may never see the light of day. The world is not waiting for your tale. And you can’t sell an idea. I believe it should be turned into something complete. A finished story, as best as you can make it. That’s the bad news. Now let’s bust a couple of myths.

You don’t have to write about what you know. HRF Keating had written a decade’s worth of very successful Inspector Ghote novels before he ever visited India, where the books are set. And I want you to forget your feelings for now and concentrate on the story. Feelings, as Antonia Byatt noted, ruin short stories. Detailed descriptions of emotional states don’t take the place of a good story well told. If it’s not fun, don’t do it because it will show in the writing.

It’s important to relax about writing. I can tell when someone has attended a writing course and is trying to produce something profound. We’re not all the same and you can make no assumptions about the reader. There are three factors in any art. The creator, the work and the public. No two factors can operate without the third.

In a short story you can afford to go crazy. You can make the main character hateful, alien to yourself. You can make the hero a dinosaur. Don’t be afraid. Make lots of mistakes, but make sure you finish what you started, and keep going through the bit where you don’t think it’s any good. Don’t worry about going off track. Often we do that because it’s where the story leads us, where it starts to get interesting.

What does a short story need to do?

Well, it doesn’t have to teach or explain. So there go all those classes about story arcs, hero’s journeys, three-act plots. It can do many things, but first it needs to surprise and maybe have a point. It needs to linger in the mind.

What surprises us most? The truth. The details of other people’s private lives would shock you. Your story needs to ring true. Don’t copy from TV, make it something that touches you, something a person said that stuck, something you saw on the way to work. Can you tell the truth when you’re writing a story where your hero is a bathmat? Yes, if it behaves like your worst relative.

Here’s an opening line from John Collier’s ‘The Devil George And Rosie’ It starts ‘There was a young man who was invariably spurned by the girls, not because he smelt at all bad but because he happened to be as ugly as a monkey.’ You want to read on, don’t you?

So, the aims. To entertain. To surprise. To reveal a truth. To touch the reader. The secret – and I think it is a secret, because no-one talks about it, is to be so relaxed that at first you don’t care how the story turns out. You’ll write badly at the start – we all do. But it will hopefully get better.

Having established the story’s aims – to entertain, to surprise, to reveal a truth, to touch and disturb the reader – think about the scenario, which runs concurrently with plot and character.

The last part of this post will contain suggestions for this.

One comment on “How To Write A Short Story Part 2”

  1. SteveB says:

    Reading the famous author’s recommendations on how to write a short story, he felt only despair. Truth? Character? He had spent his whole life searching in vain for these things. How should he ever create on a page what was missing from his life? Not caring how the story turned out was not the problem; not knowing how the story began was the immediate problem. The story’s conclusion was anyway inevitable; when to stop writing the real decision.

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