We’ve been doing a lot of work on what makes a satisfying short story at the writing group, and here’s an easily digested summary of what we’ve discussed.
A memorable short story will say something about the human condition, encapsulating one idea succinctly, with each scene building towards a crisis point, followed by a point of realisation or moment of clarity. The issue you address at the start of the story should be the issue that is resolved at the end.
A good short story starts in the middle of the action and as close to the climax as possible. At the end of the story, the main character should be in a better place than at the beginning, enabling them to move forward.
I’ve never been one for New Year resolutions that involve any sort of deprivation. So I don’t resolve to lose weight, drink less alcohol or give up eating chocolate. I much prefer positive resolutions – those that require some action or input on my part – so I might decide to take more exercise or adopt a healthier lifestyle, or, more usually, read and write more.
Apart from a few preliminary jottings and an introductory chapter, I haven’t committed much of the new novel to paper or screen just yet. Something is preventing me from getting started and the nub of the problem is this: I want to explore the use of various narrative voices and experiment with different points of view, but I’m not sure I have the expertise to do this. On the other hand, if I don’t try, I’ll never know.
As writers we are often called upon to critique another’s work. Maybe in a creative writing class, a writing group or even a friend who needs some independent input. But whenever we produce a sizeable piece of work ourselves, we should also be able to take a step back and look at it dispassionately. Just as we have a mental checklist to guide us through an assessment for a third party, so there are a number of points to check when reviewing our own work. This list is presented in no particular order of relevance or importance.
I’ve always been drawn to epistolary novels – those stories written as a series of documents, most often letters or postcards. The word epistolary is derived from the Greek word epistolé, meaning a letter, and the form can add realism to a story by introducing different viewpoints without employing the device of the omniscient narrator, which, especially for new writers, can be unwieldy and difficult to manage.
In an epistolary novel the third person omniscient – where the story is related by a head-jumping narrator who knows and sees everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each character is thinking – is supplanted by a series of communications that imparts information about the other characters, thus allowing the narrator to tell the reader things they couldn’t otherwise know.
Continuing the theme of writer’s block, here are some prompts to use when faced with that daunting blank page. I’ve used most of them at one time or another; they’re great for getting your imagination going. Sometimes just changing the sex or occupation of a main character can trigger lots of ideas. They work well when you’re free writing – just putting down the first thing that comes into your head frees up your writing muscles. You can arrange them into some sort of cohesion later, or if it’s no good, throw it away and start again. They’re particularly good if you’ve written yourself into a corner and trying to find an ingenious way out.