In this strange period we’re living through at the moment, with the doors of gyms and restaurants, cinemas and theatres, pubs and clubs all locked, many people are using the extra time to take up new leisure pursuits, including creative writing. If you’re particularly interested in fiction, the short story is a good way to get to grips with the storyteller’s craft. There are no hard and fast rules, but here are some helpful things to think about when you’re starting out.
1. Keep your eyes and ears open
Fiction may be all about invention and imagination, but the details that make a story ‘feel’ true and memorable come from the world around you. Train yourself to be observant and to notice things, whether that’s details about the physical world, or about the way people speak or behave to one another. This is often how you come up with story ideas.
2. Keep a notebook (or make notes on your phone)
It’s not just that making notes will stop you from forgetting things. There is something about the actual process of writing that helps you to develop or even discover a story idea. One sentence leads to another. You start to connect one thought with the next. Sometimes you just want to jot down a scrap of overheard conversation, or a fragment of description, and that’s fine too. A notebook is a place to practice and to record things that interest you, like an artist’s sketchpad; keeping one will make your writing richer and more textured.
A story often begins with a character, perhaps a flawed and contradictory person who has to deal with a problem of some kind. Sometimes the tension in a story comes from the fact that a character is wrestling with a strong emotion or there is a decision they need to make. In Joyce Carol Oates’s story ‘Where are you Going, Where Have You Been’, fifteen-year-old Connie is at home alone on a Sunday when a sinister man turns up in a car and invites her to join him and his friends for a ride. The story is powered by her inner struggle. She is longing to grow up and be out in the world. Is he safe? Of course not. But can she resist opening the screen door and stepping out there? It’s a nail-biting story.
4. Set your story in a moment of instability
A satisfying narrative takes the reader on a journey of some kind, so choose a time when things are in flux for your characters. Perhaps they are on the brink of growing up like Connie, or growing old, or they are falling in or out of love, leaving work, reinventing themselves or gripped by an obsession. In a character-driven story we want to see a moment when something changes: the person makes a decision, or they understand something or they let something go.
5. Ask yourself: what if?
A story might start with a situation that you have experienced, but to free yourself up to turn it into fiction you need to push it away from your own life. Often you do that by asking questions: What if I hadn’t missed that train? What if I had spoken up instead of staying silent? A story by the American writer Tobias Wolff starts with a man queuing in a bank and being irritated by the conversation of the two women standing behind him. It’s a mundane, everyday moment that we’re all familiar with. But what might happen if this ordinary scene were to be interrupted by a violent bank robbery? And what if the man was a cynical literary critic so used to writing acid reviews that he can’t take the gunmen seriously? And what if he started laughing uncontrollably because he thought their dialogue was clichéd? The story becomes a rollercoaster ride of surprises.
6. Less is more
Contemporary short stories can begin and end quite abruptly: readers are better at filling in the gaps than we think. For example, say you wanted to write a story about two people who were once close friends, then fell out horribly, and now they are thrown together in a work or social situation. You could spend a lot of time explaining the ins and outs of their former friendship and what they argued about. Or you could simply plunge into the moment when they meet again, years later, with this unexploded bomb of bad feeling lying between them. Where will this tension lead? What will happen? Ernest Hemingway famously wrote that ‘If the writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things he knows and the reader […] will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.’ (Death in the Afternoon, 1932) Good writing, says Hemingway, is like an iceberg. We see just a fraction of it above the surface of the water.
7. Be playful
The beauty of short fiction is that you can take a risk and if it doesn’t work you haven’t wasted the years that it takes to write a novel. You can write a realist story that feels like a moment snatched from someone’s life, or you can try a wild, surreal, quirky idea and see what happens. Kafka’s story ‘Metamorphosis’ is about a put-upon young salesman who wakes up one morning to find he has turned into a beetle. (What if?) I wouldn’t want to read a whole novel about this, but Kafka makes a gripping story out of it by exploring the young man’s shame and horror at his predicament.
Sinéad Gleeson’s ‘The Lexicon of Babies’, which appears in Being Various: New Irish Stories (Caldwell, ed., Faber, 2019), is set in a world where babies start being born in the shape of different letters of the alphabet. (What if?) Some of the mothers start to organise themselves into factions to privilege their babies over others. Consonants are seen as better than vowels, and rare letters like Z dominate. The theme is an ancient one: sectarian divisions, prejudice and discrimination. But by stripping away the cultural baggage that we associate with these issues Gleeson allows us to see them in a fresh and surprising way.
8. You don’t need to plan a short story
Novelists can be divided into two main camps: the planners and the pantsers. The former will plot out their stories before they write a single scene. The latter simply let their books evolve. Short stories have fewer ingredients and as such they are much more likely to be written instinctively, without a plan. Once you get the idea down as a first draft, you can develop the story through revision and redrafting.
9. How long should a short story be?
This is a question that often comes up in creative writing classes. Edgar Allan Poe believed that a short story was anything that could be read in a single sitting. But how long is that? A single sitting could mean five minutes or the best part of an afternoon. At one end of the spectrum, the stories of Canadian writer Alice Munro can be up to 20 pages long, more than 10,000 words; James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ is nearly 16,000 words. In the UK the range tends to be between 2,200 and 3,500 or 4,000 words, but there is also an increasing appetite for extremely short fiction. Anything between six and 1,000 words is called Flash Fiction and there are more and more literary magazines and competitions dedicated to the form. The shortest story is generally agreed to be: For sale: baby shoes. Never worn. Some say that Hemingway wrote this for a bet to prove how short a story could be, but that might be an urban myth.
10. How to publish a short story
There is a vibrant short story scene in UK and Ireland, which revolves around small presses and (mostly online) literary magazines. Big prizes such as the BBC National Short Story Award and the Sunday Times/ EFG Award have raised the profile of the form, and the BBC has a regular slot on Radio 4 dedicated to short stories by contemporary writers. A good place to find information about new publications and opportunities is the website Short Stops. Once you feel you have honed your craft, short story competitions are a good way to begin to build a writing CV. But the key to getting published is to make sure that your work is as good as it can be. Share your work with your peers, get feedback either by doing a course or by finding a writing group. And never stop reading!
One thing I have discovered over Lockdown is that while we may be subject to restrictions within our towns and cities, and who knows when we’ll be able to travel abroad again, writing creatively allows us to go wherever we please. Embrace your imagination. Pick up a pen and begin your own journey today.
If you have enjoyed reading this article you may also be interested in another great article How to get published. If you would like to get some guidance on your writing, City Lit offers a wide range of Writing Courses daytime, evening and weekend.
About the Author:
Vicky Grut has been teaching for City Lit since 2017. Her short fiction has been included in anthologies published by Granta, Picador and Bloomsbury. She is the author of Live Show, Drink Included (Holland Park Press, 2018) which was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize in 2019.