Short stories can dig deep in you and twist, but what is it that turns them into things of beauty?
You might write something stuffed full of framable phrases, but it just feels as flat as a burst balloon.
Sometimes I’ll finish writing a story, re-read and feel moved by it. I know then that I might have nailed it, because if you’re unaffected you can put money on it that your reader will be unaffected too. So how does a story reach into the guts of the reader?
Well, here’s my three short story must-haves:
1) Get Emotional
One of my so-far unsubmitted stories started off life as one of those flat, empty things. Sure, it had an unusual setting, a starjump of an ending and a sassy young character, but something about it didn’t feel right. I buried it somewhere on my computer. Months later, I didn’t open it again, but simply thought back to it and rewrote it anew. This time it was stuffed full of emotion. Because that’s what I’m hankering after when I write a short; I want emotional pull, a magic that makes the reader care.
As Danielle McLaughlin, author of Dinosaurs on Other Planets, puts it, ‘As I write I am chasing a certain core feeling or hunch that builds around an image or series of images, and it is this elusive thing that I follow through various shape-shifting characters and scenarios.’
2. Take Risks
What I love about short stories is that they don’t have to bow down to being commercial. You can be as literary as you like. They don’t need a happy ending. They don’t need to belong to a genre. You can break all boundaries. Why conform? In last year’s Bristol Short Story Prize, the winning A Week on the Water is such a patient unfolding that it took me two reads to really get it. And boy when I did, I just about tipped off my deckchair. It was a risk, but Brent van Staalduinen took it and it paid off.
As author Tania Hershman says:
‘The nice, neat stories where everything is explained and it all ties up at the end might be all very well, but how do they resonate with someone who lives in this world, this uncertain, complicated world?’
For Tania, it’s stories that grapple with chaos and ambiguity that are truly great.
Resist safety at all costs. Instead invite your reader to get stuck in, to question, to consider.
3. Polish the Ending
Don’t let your story peter out. No one’s looking for And they lived happily ever after. But a story does need a sense of an ending.
Chair of last year’s Bristol Prize judging panel, Sara Davies sums it up:
‘There were a number of stories that kept us reading, only to let us down with weak or inconclusive endings. A good ending isn’t necessarily a complete wrapping up of the story or a top-note finale, but a story needs an emotional resolution of some kind, so that as readers we feel we have reached an insight or understanding we didn’t have when we began reading, that our investment in the story has paid off.’
For more tips on risk-taking, read this.