Today, I've invited writer, poet and editor, Allen Ashley, onto my blog, to talk about a story that's dear to my heart: the short story.
I don’t claim to be the world’s authority on the short story but, having been a published author for over thirty years and an active editor for the last twelve, I certainly have plenty of experience; which I hope translates into expertise. I am also the current judge for the British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition. Ultimately, a lot of editorial decision-making comes down to personal taste but I’ll offer a few pointers as to what floats my boat and what torpedoes it.
Have something happen in your story. Seriously. I know that might sound trite but I have read a lot of tales where nothing much actually occurs during the 2000-5000 words. I’m not asking for crash bang wallop video game style action but, during the course of your narrative, your lead character/s should undergo at least one experience – physical and/or psychological – that changes or grows them in some way by the end of the story. If nothing happens it’s just a character sketch or a still life.
Keep your focus clear. If you’ve got to the end of page 2 and I’ve still got no idea what’s going on, I’m going to bounce the piece. I don’t have an issue with bravura writing or necessary description but if I don’t have a clue what’s happening then I can’t engage.
In general, stick to the one storyline. Multiple narratives are quite common in and often work well within novels; for a 2500-5000 worder it’s best to stay with just the one path. Two if you must; but if you change perspective after 300/500 words or so you risk breaking the reader’s empathy. A two-track story will need some sort of convergence in its denouement. Of course, rules are made to be learned and then broken and I have to own up to having co-written with Andrew Hook a short story that had three separate narrative lines. We must have got away with it because “Mermaids in a Snowstorm” was published by Gary Fry’s “Fusing Horizons”.
Avoid info dumps or what I call “Second Page Syndrome”. This is where an author starts a story with a reasonably engaging action scene on the first page then spends the next 500 words or more explaining how the protagonist came to be in that situation or why the world they live in operates the way it does. To my mind, in the first instance, this is cheating. Basically, you are teasing the reader the way certain TV dramas often do by having some action before the titles or the ad break then changing down the gears into slow build-up back to where we started. A straightforward chronology is often a better choice. In the second instance, with a whole heap of world building lumped into pages 2 and 3, my issue is that it’s illogical. We don’t spend our lives explaining all the things we take for granted – if I boil a kettle or catch a tube, I don’t need a thesis on the discovery and application of electricity. Put yourself in your character’s head – if there are aspects of their world that are commonplace and assumed, let that be true for your reader as well.
Don’t have too many characters. My average is probably four. Honestly. Sure, I’m not necessarily including minor bit part players – the waitress in the café, the ticket inspector on the train, etc; people who don’t need to be named other than by their function. Let me give you some names that create enough drama without a cast of thousands: Othello, Desdemona and Iago. Or Hansel, Gretel, the witch, the stepmother (who may also be the witch), and the feckless father. Maybe it’s my concentration issue but I find that if there are too many named speakers I get confused about who is who.
Use dialogue wisely. Don’t record every “um”, “ah”, “like” and “you know” of every conversation. Taut, well-paced dialogue can move a story along quicker than description of character or even action. Your players are defined by what they do and, crucially, say.
As a general rule, don’t go overboard on idiom, dialect and accent. Sure, Anthony Burgess’ droogs had their own street slang in “A Clockwork Orange” and that is crucial to the success of the novel; but mostly in a short story it’s best to play safe and stick to Standard English. Lynne Barrett-Lee writes succinctly about this in a recent issue of online writing journal “Words With Jam” – “Things I hate: Phonetic dialogue to denote regional accents.” The internal voice that narrates the tale doesn’t like struggling with awkwardly rendered versions of conversation. Save the Geordie twang or the
Devon burr for when you’re scripting
the TV adaptation.
Cut the last line off your ending. Or more. Tell the reader enough but don’t over-explain, it spoils the magic.
Accept that your ideas, your what ifs, might not be as original as you thought. I once had a very gentle put down from the lovely, late Ken Bulmer when I approached him with a whole list of what I thought were cracking plot ideas for his “New Writings in SF” series. He told me they were all quite familiar and rather generic.
Even the classics might not be as brand spanking new as we believe. A misfit child at a school for witchcraft and magic? Harry who? Sounds to me like Jill Murphy’s “The Worst Witch”. Orwell’s “1984”? Heavily influenced by Zamyatin’s “We”. So I suppose that old adage is true: It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
Kurt Vonnegut had a great piece of advice, which was: “Start the story as close to the end as you dare.” This ensures urgency and drama and helps you to avoid spending pages scene setting and waffling. It’s certainly a maxim I have tried to apply.
Another arresting way of starting your story is what I call the trap door method. Some might call it the rug pull. This is where you set up an intriguing scenario to reel your readers in before suddenly revealing extra significant information that suddenly changes the emphasis and import of what’s gone before. This is a technique I applied in my novelette “Somme-Nambula”. In the first paragraph, the narrator John Dove talks about a magician/mesmerist he saw in his youth, someone who could catch a live bullet in his hands. Dove imagines himself as a perfect choice to be plucked out as a foil from the audience “because I was already a noted somnambulist”. In the very next paragraph, he reveals: “Not that I said anything of the sort to the recruiting officer as he placed light pencil ticks on my enlistment papers.” This sentence removes him from the past and the end of the pier stage show to an immediate future in the trenches of the First World War.
How should you end your story? Over the years, I have veered away from the Saki or Roald Dahl style unexpected twist at the end. This method works reasonably well for flash fiction but can be rather unsatisfying in a longer piece. Why? Essentially, a story that builds solely towards its twist or reversal ending doesn’t always bear a second reading – once you know the trick or punchline, there may not be enough else there to sustain interest. Consider this as well: the story has in many ways been written backwards and in the same manner as a joke, where it’s all about hitting that final line. So – go for a fulfilling end that at least ties up some of the loose ends but is still open enough to keep resonating with the reader for a while after they’ve put down the book or logged off the screen.
Be bold, take chances. The memorable stories stand out for a reason. Admittedly, some editors like their fiction cosy and almost indistinguishable from whatever has gone before. So here’s some advice: don’t have anything to do with those editors. Don’t bother submitting and don’t buy their predictable product. It’s just wallpaper; literary white bread. Find the places that genuinely want to, or better still, require a fresh approach and an individual voice. In 2012, the first time that I judged the British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition, I was almost at the closing of the submission window and I had some very good stories on my shortlist. Then something popped into my Inbox which blew everybody else out of the water. This was “Rope of Words” by Megan Kerr. This piece was audacious yet light, taking in fairy tales and Greek mythology in a brilliantly clever and inventive tale posited on the device of words being magical, used as a currency, a treasure, artistic artefacts, etc. What really swung it for me was that Megan used the device of relevant segments of words / word chains to demarcate the divisions between her story sections. Like this:
~ refractory ~ monger ~ wangle ~ farrier ~ ether ~ rive ~ reagent ~ expiate ~ spume ~ cranny ~ sluice ~
Breathtaking stuff and a classic example of that holy grail for editors / judges: the “I wish I’d written that!” moment.
Lastly, for now: I also work as a lyricist and a poet. In those two disciplines, every single word or even syllable has to earn its place. Treat short stories exactly the same way. I do. Follow this neo-chiasmus: You only have a short word count, make each word count. Don’t waffle. Waffle is for maple syrup and squirty cream; not for fiction.
Of course, you are completely at liberty to disregard or disagree with any advice I’ve offered here. Like I mentioned earlier, rules are there to be broken. I’m sure that I’ve not properly stuck by my own maxims, so don’t bother pulling me on it. Deborah asked me for some thoughts on the short story so, naturally, I obliged. Now go off and write… and impress me with your story.
Thanks for reading.
Allen is also the judge for the British Fantasy Society Short Story Competition. Entrance closes 30 June 2015. Details here: http://www.britishfantasysociety.org/the-bfs-short-story-competition-2015/