How To Write A Short Story Part 3
The shape of your story is built by the aim, the scenario, the characters, the plot, the style – and through them the idea emerges. The danger is that by not constructing a short story this way around, by starting with what you want to get across, you can end up with something plodding and manipulative, because you’ll have to keep dragging at your characters to get them back on track. Stories and films about fascism, race, politics and other big issues often end up doing this because they don’t unfold in a natural progression – they start with the aim and the idea ruins the characters.
So pick a scenario. Two strange women meet on a beach. A schoolboy plays a cruel trick on an old man. An African girl from a small village arrives in a big city for the first time. An idiot tries to impress a sophisticated woman at a party. Whatever you come up with, stay with it to the end.
A short story plot is not a three-act play. It doesn’t need the kind of structure one would expect in a novel. It may even end before the main event. In J G Ballard’s ‘The Watchtowers’, sinister towers are built all over a frightened town and nobody knows what they’re for. In the last line of the story they all begin to open at once; what happens? We don’t know. The point is to highlight the effect that a police state has on ordinary people.
In a very famous story, Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’, villagers hold a raffle and cheerfully stone a character to death, but there is no explanation provided that will allow us to understand why. The point of the story is that actions are often inexplicable. So the plot doesn’t directly provide the reader with satisfaction. It is the author’s delivery method for the idea. A plot is a skeleton; it’s hidden under the skin. It needs characters and scenario to function. The perfect plot is one which emerges from a visible but hidden factor.
Tennessee Williams said ‘I don’t want realism. I want magic…I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be true.’ So your scenario can be as grand as you like, or as small. Tiny moments can reveal great truths. Sometimes it’s fun to be big. The important thing is to keep the opening simple and clear. I read a story about a man who discovers a murder in the countryside. But the thing I remember is a moment before something big happens. A fat raindrop the size of an old coin smacks onto his car bonnet, making him jump. We’ve all jumped at something silly. That raindrop is enough to suggest that something is coming.
Short stories don’t have time to waste, and they should be pleasurable to read.
They’re more enjoyable when the main character has a terrible time. Panic breeds action, and action gives you pace – when I read a short story which starts with a person staring out of a window thinking about life, or begins with a description of the weather, or a vague mental state, my heart sinks, because I know we are off to a slow start and we only have a few pages. The reader will be thinking about the likely outcome of the tale, playing over all the possibilities – and how awful if the reader has already worked out where the writer is heading?
Good plots satisfy immensely; For this reason Roald Dahl is often cited as the perfect short story writer, but he’s not my favourite, rather one of many. Dahl shares a common understanding of people. He’s also easy to read; no crime, this – for some reason, certain writers go out of their way to be unreadable in short form. I’ve been guilty myself. I once wrote a story in futuristic phonetic teen slang – I’ve never met anyone who’s read it.
Inspiration for a plot can come, of course, from newspaper reports, friends, the internet, anywhere, but often they’re rarely enough on their own. What you add is what makes you original, and that story unique to you.
Here’s an example of a perfect short story; ‘Don’t look now,’ says John to his wife, ‘but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.’ John and Laura have lost their daughter – she drowned – and now they’re in Venice. Daphne Du Maurier’s short story ‘Don’t Look Now’ combines three ideas.
I. John and Laura lost a child.
2. Two old ladies are psychic.
3. There’s a killer on the loose in Venice.
The writer creates a situation in which these three facts rely on each other. If the couple had not gone to Venice, if there wasn’t a killer roaming the dark alleys, if the old ladies hadn’t been in the cafe. Laura spends too much time with the psychics and John gets frightened for her. Are they going to do something bad to her? We can’t see what’s coming, and nor can John. Because we’re looking in the wrong direction and we’re missing the obvious, just as John has missed it. John has an ability nobody knows about, not even him. He’s not seeing what’s happening now, he’s seeing what will happen in a few days’ time. And if he’d understood what he was seeing, everything would have been different – how often in life do we ask ourselves what would have happened if we’d only behaved differently? That’s why the story is famous; it will never date because it’s about an ordinary human regret.
A plot can’t simply be shoved onto its characters, because free will must be exercised – but of course people are blind, or optimistic, or cruel, and this affects the outcome. That’s life. The critic Kenneth Tynan once said that you don’t need to know why two people fall in love, you just need to know that they do.
The greatest plot danger is predictability. I read a great many stories where I’m ahead of the writer. It’s not because I’m especially astute – I have trouble following Game of Thrones – but what seems original to the author is not necessarily original to the reader. When you think through your story, it’s a good exercise to deliberately not do what you were planning sometimes. These notes are the tip of a very large iceberg, but don’t give up. Two paragraphs can give you a short story, if they’re good ones.
One day I may publish a guide to writing, if I reach that happy state where I feel I’m good enough myself to teach others.