As promised, Amanda Quinn is back on the blog again to follow up her piece on flash fiction, with one on short stories. Thanks very much Amanda.
Thanks for inviting me back, Hazel. A few years ago I was at a writing workshop where the tutor asked us to name our favourite short story. Interestingly, we all found this difficult. So, that’s my first tip – read more short stories. I’ve listed some of my favourite stories and writers at the end of this post and it would be great to hear other recommendations from your readers.
So, what can a short story offer you compared to flash fiction? The obvious answer is more words. Just how many is debatable, but, as a rough guide, most fall somewhere between 1000 to 7,500. Because of that, there’s more space to breathe in a short story. But not much. All short fiction is usually read in one sitting and tends to concentrate on a single issue or theme. To help you focus, see if you can summarise what your story is about in one sentence. Then make sure everything you write contributes to this – you could stick it to your screen/wall/phone as you work if you need a visible reminder.
Having said that, the extra words in a short story come with more of a requirement to provide a beginning, middle and end and recognisable character development compared to the brief glimpse I talked of in my flash fiction post. To help with this, try answering three basic questions:
1. Whose story is it?
2. What happens to set the story in motion?
3. What changes by the end of the story?
Also, think carefully about how you want to structure your story. Make a list of as many different ways to tell it as you can think of. Could you start at the end? Use only text messages? Or two narrators? In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the main character lives his life in reverse and Notes On A Love Story1 by Philip Langeskov (first published in Five Dials Issue No.9) is mainly written in footnotes. This doesn’t mean you should feel obliged to be eccentric – sometimes just changing the tense or point of view can transform a story.
When I read short story collections or magazines I’m highly likely to skip those which don’t grab my attention in the first sentence. Again, making a list of potential opening lines can be useful. Or write your story and delete the first paragraph to see if it still works. I find it usually does and it’s a good way to make sure you start at a more immediate and gripping point. And don’t forget to look at how other writers have begun their stories. I love the start of Angela Readman’s story Don’t Try This at Home: ‘I cut my boyfriend in half; it was what we both wanted.’ Finally, remember you don’t have to write your first line first. It’s sometimes much easier to come back to it once you’ve written your story.
When it comes to finishing your story, it’s worth noting that most short stories don’t end ‘neatly’. Instead, think about how to provide a more subtle or ambivalent ending to give your reader space to think about what will happen next and what the story means – a good example is the haunting final paragraph of James Joyce’s The Dead. In any short story, there has to be some sort of development by the end though. So think how your ending will satisfy your reader that something – however small – has changed.
A final thing to think about – and one which deserves another blog post to fully do it justice – is who you’re writing your short story for. With flash fiction I usually write the story first then consider where to place it. When I write a short story I’m more likely to first give some thought to the market. Am I aiming to produce something with heart and emotion (and no shocking content) to suit a women’s magazine or something original to stand out amongst competition entries? To help with this, start with the publication you’re targeting. Read last year’s competition winners or analyse the stories (and other content) of a magazine. What kind of story would their readers most enjoy? There’s lots of information available on how to write for women’s magazines and I’ve listed some books and websites below. Also, a reminder to read the submission guidelines and FOLLOW THEM (one of my most embarrassing writing moments was submitting a short story written in the third person to a competition which specifically requested stories written in the first person).
Of course, I’ve only just scratched the surface of short story writing in this post – here are some places to find out more:
Short Circuit – A Guide to the Art of the Short Story. Edited by Vanessa Gebbie. Salt, 2009.
Write Short Stories and get them Published: Teach Yourself by Zoe Fairbairns. Hodder Education, 2011.
Writing Short Stories (Writers’ and Artists’ Companions) by Courttia Newland and Tania Hershman. Bloomsbury, 2014.
Women’s Magazine Short Story Resources
How To Write And Sell Fiction To Magazines by Douglas McPherson. Kindle edition, 2016.
How To Write And Sell Short Stories by Della Galton. Accent Press, 2008.
The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies. Salt Publishing, 2014.
Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay. Picador, 2013.
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Fourth Estate, 2017.
The American Lover by Rose Tremain. Vintage, 2015.
Best British Short Stories (published annually). Edited by Nicholas Royle. Salt Publishing.
What Are You Like by Shelley Day. Red Squirrel Press, 2018.
Don’t Try This at Home by Angela Readman. And Other Stories, 2015.
I also love the short stories of Penelope Lively, Daphne Du Maurier, Mollie Painter Downes, Lorrie Moore, Katherine Mansfield, and Alice Monroe.
Thanks Amanda, and just a reminder, as well as specialising in writing flash fiction, short stories and poetry, Amanda is also a qualified adult education tutor and teaches creative writing for the Workers Educational Association – you can find a list of her current courses here in the Creative Writing section .She also offers a mentoring service for adults and young people so they can make progress with their writing. She is, in her own words ‘passionate about the benefits of reading and writing for all.’