Thinking about short stories

I’ve been reworking a couple of short stories recently and it’s made me realise (well, I already knew but it’s reinforced!) just what a challenging genre the short story is.

A successful short story has to do so much in so few words – between 1000 (unless it’s flash fiction) and 5000 (any more and it’s becoming a novella!). The characters must live, the subject/writing must engage the reader, the theme must sing throughout, the ending must satisfy emotionally and intellectually. Essentially, the narrative must take the character on a journey which will resolve in some way in a life that is lost, redeemed, narrowed or awakened.  

As I said – challenging!

So, how to achieve this difficult feat of producing a masterpiece? Did I say difficult? I actually meant impossible! But there’s no point writing this if I’m just going to throw my hands in the air and shout impossible. Are there any rules on writing a successful short story that might help us beat our way through the jungle that is okay, mediocre, quite interesting … ?

I don’t know about ‘rules’. It’s always dangerous to be prescriptive about the creative and imaginative. But I came across this set of rules from the American writer, Kurt Vonnegut (from his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box) and I thought I’d share them – and throw in the odd comment of my own.

 1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

When you’re writing, it’s easy to get caught up in the process, to become absorbed in the complexities of character, plot, dialogue, setting, point of view … and in doing so forget – THE READER. We do this at our peril: in the world of books – the reader reigns supreme. It’s important ask ‘Reader  – how is it for you?’

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

Readers doesn’t necessarily have to like the character or agree with everything he/she does (in one of my favourite reviews of ‘Unravelling’ the reader gets thoroughly fed up with Vanessa: Throughout the book I wanted to grab Vanessa and give her a good shake for the decisions she kept making and even though she drove me mad I couldn’t put it down.) but they need to feel involved with the character, to understand/empathise and ultimately want what’s best for the character.   

3. Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.

A goal and motivation for that goal is what drives every character’s story. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a goal of the ‘run a marathon, climb Everest, learn Swahili’ type, but the character definitely needs to want something – something that he/she can’t have.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal the character or advance the action.

Good advice. It’s too easy to let flab in. Cut, cut and cut again. Ditch everything that isn’t pulling its weight. I think of the words of William Trevor (a wonderful short story writer) ‘The short story is bony. It cannot wander.’

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

You can’t better the advice (often applies to social occasions as well) – get in late; get out early!

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet or innocent your characters are, make awful things happen to them – in order that  the reader can see what they’re made of.

Characters need to be placed in difficult situations for their true nature to be discovered. Up the anti!

7. Write for just one person. If you open the window and make love to the world – so to speak – your story will get pneumonia.

Follows on from rule one: keep your reader in the forefront of your mind.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have as much understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

This is an interesting one. Some of the students I teach conceal information that the reader needs in order to understand what’s going on thinking they are generating suspense. The result is more often confusion than suspense. But I do think you should only give the reader what they need to know to understand the story so far. Give too much away too soon and you lose the tension, the desire to read on. Don’t give away enough and you annoy the reader – they’ll probably stop reading!

Having compiled his set of ‘rules’ Vonnegut says The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor.  (1925-1964) She broke practically every one of my rules except the first. Great writers tend to do that.

And a quote from Neil Gaiman The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. (Guardian)

 You can listen to Kurt Vonnegut outlining his rules for writing a short story on you tube.

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  1. Mo Hall says:

    I am reminded of a quote that my son is fond of: “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.” (I think it came from the film ‘Reach for the Sky’). However, most of us fall somewhere in the middle here, and I found this set of rules very helpful. Particularly the advice to ‘write for just one person’: it really personalises the audience you are aiming at. ‘Dear Reader’, I will take this advice!

  2. Lindsay says:

    Glad you found them useful, Mo. I think take them as guidelines and use whatever has significance for you. Interesting to see what you feel the impact is.

  3. Interesting post, Lindsay. Makes me more determined to come along to your writing classes.

  4. Lindsay says:

    Thanks, Polly. Would be great to have you along on one of the courses – short story and novel (to run on Thursdays) will be advertised for Malvern in September. Assuming there are enough people!

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