If you took a university writing course or even a short informal writing course, the chances are your tutor would present you with a list of what they might call elements of a short story, such as character, setting and plot, and some advice or rules to help you write your own.
You would probably be advised, among other things, to:
- Write believable characters – a list of basic biographical info and key personal moments may help, but…
- Avoid including too many characters in shorter stories, in case you confuse the reader
- Know your plot – once upon a time known as beginning, middle and end, sometimes termed (complete with neat mathematical diagrams) exposition, climax and resolution, all this really means is, something should happen
- Create a believable setting – this does not have to be a realistic setting, just a world that stands up for the duration of the story, or is “internally consistent”
- Work within the usual lengths – taking 1,000 words as a minimum, 5,000 a maximum; stories written for coursework or competitions are often from 2,000 to 2,500 words long
There are plenty of rule-based approaches to short story writing out there, but it can be more fruitful to think of the above as norms rather than rules, allowing yourself the freedom to work outside them. I doubt many writers find it helps to be overly conscious of such rules or norms in writing a first draft. They may be more helpful after you’ve done a first draft, in looking at what you’ve got and deciding whether this is a finished story that other people will get something from, or whether it needs a re-think.
Advice to writers about dialogue is often contradictory: Make your dialogue realistic – but not so realistic that it’s boring. Always have dialogue, never have dialogue. Use your dialogue to advance the plot, don’t use it to advance the plot. Use conventional punctuation, don’t, etc. What this really tells us is the writer should try things out, and see whether or not they work, for their particular story.
Possibly the single most useful piece of advice, is to read published short stories. Obviously not so as to mimic what you read but to see what other writers have written and are writing today. There are lots of good and even great stories available to read online, if you know where to look. But although it is convenient to read short stories on a mobile or other electronic device, the printed page, at the time of writing, still remains a fantastic way to read, and one that ensures your reading is uninterrupted by the arrival of voicemails or messages, and the author is paid for their work.
So, I’d like to use this opportunity to suggest a short story that helps show some of the range and depth that writers have achieved within the short story form.
I confess to being a little uncertain what to do here by way of introducing the story I want to share. It can destroy a story – any story – for the reader to know too much about it in advance. I’m aware this is an old-fashioned view in a world where many people like to re-read or re-watch the same story over and over. To see or read different versions of it: the book, the movie, the game, the t-shirt, the re-mix, the boxed set of books with matching covers. But aside from the issue of whether such behaviour is partly invited by clever and creative marketing, here’s part of my logic for it.
A big element of any good story, whatever its genre, is surprise. If you lose that, then why bother reading? To some extent, surprise is one of the reasons why stories written a little outside of the norm are often the ones that in the end, we remember. Because they are different. Unusual in some way. Memorable.
Maybe it is because the writer really cares about what they have chosen to write about. Or maybe they just got lucky that day. If you want to enjoy a story as story, as opposed to admiring it as craft or perhaps for its longevity or how widely read it is, how important to readers it must be, then it isn’t always a good thing to know too much about the work that went into making it.
This particular story takes up about the same number of words as this article. The writer had received numerous accolades and was getting on in years when she published it, but was still active. You’d struggle to find a text-book ‘well-defined character’ here, as you might with many pieces of flash fiction and yet what you get is a powerful piece of writing, and a deft, surprising and memorable story.
Loot by Nadine Gordimer was first published in 1999 in the New Yorker, and the book of stories of the same title appeared in 2003, and is still in print. The book is well worth reading for its insider perspective on post-apartheid South Africa. The story is not set in a particular country. If you click here: Loot Nadine Gordimer, you will find it. Read it. Read it and see what you think.
(c) Lane Ashfeldt
Find out more about Lane’s short story collection Saltwater here