This post grew out of an article I originally wrote for the Hysterectomy Association when I was writer in residence of their annual writing competition earlier this year.
I recently came across the WikiHow entry on how to write a short story. The actual article contains good advice, but I arched an eyebrow when I read the introduction.
“While writing a novel can be a Herculean task, just about anybody can craft and, most importantly, finish, a short story.”
No, they can’t – unless the writer means that almost anybody can produce 1000+ words of grammatically correct sentences that somehow link up together, but that’s no more a short story than a roll of material pinned into a tube is a dress.
I resent the idea that short stories are an easy option. The very size means there’s nowhere to hide flabby ideas and weak sentences. A clunky phrase stands out as if it had been highlighted in neon yellow. Usually a short story has a very restricted range of characters and the action takes place over a relatively short period of time – days rather than years – and there’s no room for time slips or flash backs. Usually. As soon as you try to formulate any rule of writing you can think of brilliant exceptions, but I read a lot of short stories by emerging writers and here are some of the most common problems I come across.
1) Too much information
I don’t need to know that the head gardener is called Barry and is a veteran of the Falklands War if all he does is knock on a door. It may sound like being a member of a spy ring, but everything’s on a need to know basis. If Barry only has a walk on part readers don’t need to be introduced.
2) Too many names
Not every character has to be named. They can be refered to as their occupation: the vicar, the postman. Or by their relationship to others: grandad, his wife, her teacher….
3) Too much back story
Sir Angus Wilson who helped set up the first UK Masters in creative writing at the University of East Anglia in the early 1970s thought that short stories and plays were similar.
“You take a point in time and develop it from there; there is no room for development backwards.”
I think Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, was saying much the same thing when she described short stories as ‘a world seen in a quick glancing light. ’
4) Too much description
If you think of a story as a journey, description forces the reader to stop. It’s as if the author is saying hold on a moment, I know you want to find out what happens next, but I’ve created a whole new world for your enjoyment: stop and look at the sun reflecting on the water, the child’s soft curls and the cold blue of the spring sky… Too much description and the reader might not bother to wait for the journey to start again. Too little and the reader might not care where the journey is heading.
5) Too timid
Safe stories about safe subjects don’t linger long in the memory. Once you’ve got an idea ask what if? and keep on pushing the boundaries…Avoid timid titles too. Think of it as the first line of the story – which is most likley to make you want to find out more: The Party or Jiving with St Joseph?
6) Too Over the Top
You can’t encapsulate the complexity of a novel length idea in a few thousand words without losing something vital. Accept that you have a small canvas.
7) Starting in the wrong place
Do you really need to set the scene? And do you need to do it in the opening paragraphs? Introductions are needed in academic essays – not short stories. The great American writer Kurt Vonnegut said start as near to the end as possible. Experiment – see how far you can push that idea.
And here’s the rest of Kurt rules for what you should put into a short story.
Can you think of any more sins?
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