Friday, 26 February 2010

What is a short story?

I wonder how many hundreds of posts there already are on writerly blogs with that title? Oh well, bear with me while I add my own.

I was reading Short Circuit in the bath the other night, and came across this paragraph which I loved, in the essay by Alison MacLeod. Hope she doesn't mind me reproducing a snippet here:

A poem is many things, but it is fundamentally about language and image. A novel is many things, but it is, above all, an architecture of events. A short story is language, image and event but it is fundamentally about character. The plot of a short story is nothing more than the unfolding of a character, or perhaps the unfolding of a couple of characters. That's the beauty of the form, the terrific sense of intimacy it can offer us.

The unfolding of a character. Yes, yes, yes! Start with your character, give him or her a problem, and let them resolve the problem in their own way, revealing their true personality as they do so. That's the formula, if there is such a thing, for a successful short story.

While writing a story a couple of weeks ago, I had that marvellous experience you sometimes get, when the story wrote itself. My initial idea had been to write about a woman who was sitting alone in a police interrogation room. She'd been set up by her partner, and was now accused of murder. Well, after scratching my head for a few minutes I came up with the following first line, which also gave me the voice: They've left me in here to stew.

The story instantly became part confessional, part monologue. And my character came to life, and led the way. By the time I got to the end, just an hour later, she'd revealed to me that she was the murderer, her poor partner was a dupe, and she'd not only killed the person she was accused of killing, but also someone else (her partner's father) years before. She was a right cow, and the least pleasant character I've ever invented. Though as I say, she kind of invented herself. She unfolded, as the story progressed.
(Had to work hard in the edit to imply she would get her comeuppance, to give the story a chance in the womag markets! You can have horrible characters as long as they are going to have to pay for their crimes eventually.)

The terrific sense of intimacy. Oh yes. The best short stories take us right inside the character's head, and for a few minutes we live and breathe as them. Because they are so short, they need to pack intense emotion into very few words. The writer must choose those few words carefully, for maximum impact. In a novel you have the luxury of unfolding a character slowly, using several scenes to develop that sense of intimacy. In a short story you need to get there in a thousand words or so. They will have to be the right words.

And if this post makes no sense to you (quite possible, I've been at the amber nectar), try this one instead, on Nicola Morgan's excellent blog, which contains some eminently sensible advice from the brilliant Sally Zigmond.


Old Kitty said...


Oh wonderful post! I submitted my "please give me a signed copy of Short Circuit" entry to Nicola's competition!

Well you never know!! And if the quote here is symptomatic of the book I shall have everything crossed that I win. :-)

I love how your character near enough wrote itself - became this separate entity that would definitely make the story even more powerful.

I thought Nicola's piece on short story writing with links to Nik Perring and Vanessa Gebbie and Short Circuit was excellent!

Take care

Queenie said...

Makes perfect sense to me. Plus I'm a regular reader of Nicola Morgan's blog, and I agree, it is excellent.

Joanna said...

This is brilliant advice to keep in mind and has already made me realise how I can improve the story I'm working on at this moment.

Short Circuit is an amazing book and I would recommend it to all writers.

Thanks so much, as always, for this helpful post.

Quillers said...

Brilliant advice, and having one of the privileged few who has read it, it's a brilliant story, Womag. Despite your character taking over, you never really lost control of the story, which can so easily happen, and that is the mark of a great writer, I think.

Debs said...

Many thanks for this wonderful post. I need all the help I can get with short stories so this is most welcome.

Sally Zigmond said...

Great post! Absolutely bang on the money. Character is what drives all fiction but the short story is The one form that gives the writer the chance to concentrate on one character. And that character drives the plot-or action, even if all the action is internal.

Too many new writers think up an ingenious plot and then quickly pick a character to play it out. It never works. The character needs to speak to you first--love that first line, womag!--before the story can even begin to unfold.

And the fact that the story 'wrote itself' showed that it was 'right'.

Suzanne Jones said...

Brilliant post. And thank you for the links.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Great advice, perfectly described.

Joanne Fox said...

I love it when you find yourself with a really strong character. Sometimes it doesn't feel like you're inventing that story yourself, but as if you're just following that character around, seeing what they get up to. Strong editing is also often needed though, for the benefit of the story.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

What a lovely and generous mention of 'Short Circuit', and particularly of Alison's chapter. I'm extremely delighted that you enoyed the book. That is a real accolade. Thank you, on behalf of all the contributors.

- and this marvellous thing that happens when a character just does their own thing and we follow behind with a pen or typing fast... it is magic. Long may it last! happy writing.

I'm looking forward to reading all the entries to the little competition!

womagwriter said...

Thanks all for your comments!

Olivia Ryan said...

Loved this post, Womag - and loved your description of your new story and how it wrote itself. Please let us know when it is accepted! (Note I didn't say IF but WHEN!).

Tim said...

Great! ... but now I want to read it!!

Jennifer J said...

I LOVE the quote from the book - what a great way to describe the differences between poems, novels, and short stories.