What makes a good Short Story?
Thankfully, there is no formula. Short stories may be descriptive, narrative, and poetic or dramatic and fast-paced, reliant on sharp dialogue with almost no description at all. But every short story, like every story ever told must engage. The short story writer doesn’t have the luxury of introducing and developing characters at a leisurely pace. Short fiction demands that setting and characters are established quickly and efficiently, hooking the reader in the first paragraph – even in the first line. If the writer is unsure of the story, the reader will know, and will judge harshly. Tone, voice, style, atmosphere and point of view, must all be carefully weighed and weighted. The writing must, of necessity, be concise, and every scene, every exchange of dialogue, every action must be there for a purpose – loose writing is unforgivable. Small wonder I put off any attempt at short fiction until I was working on my fourth novel!
My advice to aspiring writers: use the short form to hone your skills. I know – physician heal thyself and all that. But here’s the kicker – I wish someone had given me this advice when I was starting out. Why? Because short fiction teaches precision of language and clarity of expression; it teaches discipline, and its brevity makes working on the technicalities manageable. A writer can really think about the important aspects of story-telling without getting bogged down by the sheer volume of words s/he has to buff to a shine. It stands to reason that editing 5000 words has got to be easier than editing 100 000 – not easy, you understand – just easi-er. If you want to learn how to write good short stories, read them. Analyse them. Think about the choices the writer made and why they made them. Ask yourself if you would have made different choices – you’ll learn a lot about your writing style and aspirations from that kind of analysis. Find the clunky phrases and polish them. Find the beautiful, the evocative, the hard edged, the thrilling, the suspenseful in the stories you read and discover how the writer achieved all of those things in their writing. You’ll need to pick apart a paragraph or a sentence; look at word order, the choice of verbs, their use of adjectives (if they use them at all!). You need to feel the rhythm of the words, and the best way to do that is to read aloud – as you should read aloud your own words.
When you’ve written your stories (and set them aside and edited them and read them again and re-written them) submit them – to competitions, fanzines, magazines, collections – whoever will read them and give you feedback. You might even win a prize, but even if you don’t – especially if you don’t – you should listen, really listen to what they are trying to tell you. You will understand more with each submission, and will grow as a writer.
Margaret Murphy is the writing half of A.D. Garrett. She won the Crime Writers’ Association Short Story Dagger 2012 for her story, The Message, in Best Eaten Cold and Other Stories.
Everyone Lies is her first collaborative work with Professor Dave Barclay. It will be published by Constable Crime in June 2013.