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Short Stories: Freeing Yourself from Idea Scarcity by Courtney Smyth

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courtney smyth

Courtney Smyth

Once upon a time, I believed stories had one beginning, one middle, and one ending. Once those stories were told in that way, that was it: its potential was reached, and that story must be put away for good. I also believed that a story’s potential could be lost if it was concentrated into a few thousand words – that I was cutting its life short by decanting an idea into a short story. Ideas were very precious to me, and like many beginner writers, I feared I only had one story in me, and that that story was always meant to be a full-length book.

Over the years of starting, finishing and abandoning novels, I loosened up on that fear a bit, but the realisation didn’t fully shatter until I took a writing class hosted by author Maggie Stiefvater a few years ago. She said many revelatory things in this class, but the one thing that made angels appear from on high and a dawning sense of relief wash over me was this: ideas are, actually, infinite.

Even knowing the adage that there are seven basic plots, it had never occurred to me that ideas are infinite. They don’t have to be wholly original. They don’t have to be devoid of cultural context. They don’t have to be the next big thing or the most on-the-pulse concept – they’ll keep coming regardless.

Something suddenly unlocked in my mind that day. If 100 writers could take the same basic concept and write 100 different stories, then maybe it also meant I could take a theme or a motif, a character or a concept, and reinvent them over and over. It was the first time I really understood just how free I was to keep taking new ideas and twisting and turning them into new stories, and that doing this was never wasting anything. For the first time, I didn’t have to keep all my ideas for novels (or feel guilty if I didn’t). I could explore anything that ignited a little spark of something, and I could look at it in short form; there was no pressure to weave an idea into a longer work. I could write short stories infinitely, and none of it was a waste. I could take pride in a completed short story even if I never shared it with anyone.

Once I got used to the notion that ideas would keep coming and that I could embrace the concept of short stories, I began to properly see short story writing as the artform it truly is. I found myself actively drawn to short story collections, paying attention to how the authors often had complementary themes running throughout. It is a skill in any kind of writing to be able to make readers feel deeply, but it is a specific, practised skill to be able to evoke deep feelings in such a compact way. The power of short stories and what could be done within them was something countless writers had figured out long before me, but I was glad to finally join their ranks.

My story ‘Disloyal Order’, published in The Last Five Minutes of a Storm, took a very simple concept: a friendship ending over the course of a night out. For this piece, I experimented with voice and the setting in a way I haven’t before. I wanted readers – and myself, as the first reader – to feel the space my two characters were in, and I focused on emotional resonance as well as tactile experience. Friendship is a big theme in a lot of my writing, but endings hadn’t featured before. There was no ‘right’ way to tell this story, but this felt like the way I wanted to tell it. Another writer could’ve told it differently, or perhaps if I’d sat down on a different day or chose a different setting, it would be an entirely different story.

Short stories offer a valuable space to explore an emotion, an idea, a flash of something that needs to be on paper. Characters can stay contained in that snapshot forever, or may escape off that page and be reworked into another story at a later point. They give you space to completely explore one single scene, or one single aspect of a character. They offer a chance at concentrated focus on the unfolding of a single thread; how to make the characters move around the space, and how to make it rich and engaging. They are the ultimate proof to any writer that they as artists contain more than just one idea. Over time, short stories can become a body of work that shows your thinking, whether that is two finished pieces or twenty. There is no reason why you can’t explore the same theme or use the same characters over and over until you’re satisfied you’ve got nothing else to say about it – for now, at least.

(c) Courtney Smyth

About The Last Five Minutes of a Storm:

In this collection, 15 writers explore what it means to be at the climatic point of a crisis, with salvation just in sight – but not quite there yet! Expect stories of defiance, grief, connection, magic and, of course, a dash of strangeness.

With stories by Chris Bogle, Mei Davis, Aoife Esmonde, Kasandra Ferguson, Helena Pantsis, Sandy Parsons, Jamie Perrault, Daniel Ray, Samuel Skuse, Courtney Smyth, Tessa Swackhammer, Liz Ulin, Brigitte de Valk, Holden Wertheimer-Meier and Liza Wieland.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Courtney Smyth is from Dublin, Ireland. They are a writer of short stories, novels and lists, though not necessarily in that order. They have previously been published in Paper Lanterns Literary Journal. In 2020 they were a mentee on the Words Ireland National Mentoring Programme. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram @cswritesbooks

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