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This is a guest post from Emma Newman, author of short story anthology, From Dark Places.
I must confess, when Joanna asked for tips on writing a great short story, I panicked.
Quite apart from the usual fear that I would be declaring myself an expert (to which I have an intense aversion) I found myself worrying about answering one question before I could even contemplate this post:
What's a great short story?
I mean, even before we consider the “great” part, there are so many different kinds of short stories. Ones with twists and ones without, ones with only 6 words, some that are almost novellas. Some that focus on only one person, in one place and time, some that span centuries in only a couple of thousand words…
Then I realised that really, all I can do is talk about how I approach writing a short story, and leave it to you to know which short stories are great for you (after all, one person's great short story is another person's torture).
It goes without saying that short stories need to be tight. Characters and worlds need to be sketched with minimal details that reveal pages and pages worth of ideas and details in a reader's mind. There's no room for flabby description, nor any exposition that doesn't move the story forwards. But what else is needed?
I prefer to write short stories inspired by prompts. Sometimes stories pop into my head fully formed, but that's rare, and if I depended on that purest form of inspiration, I would not have an anthology on sale. I set up my Short Story Club to ensure that I would always have an original pool of prompts to choose from, and the one I pick as the winner each month has to have a key quality:
It has to make me ask a question.
For me, that is the essence of building tension in the incredibly short timeframe the short story permits. It's there if a question is created in the reader's mind, within the first paragraph – ideally the first line if possible without sounding too contrived. That's the hook, once you have the reader asking that question, you have them reading on to find out the answer.
Let me give you an example
One of the stories in my anthology begins; Dear Michael, The dog is in the oven. Don't open it, it's too late. I'm sorry.
My hope is that the reader will think “Dog in the oven? How did it get there? Did she bake it? Wait – she seems remorseful… was it an accident? How do you accidentally bake a dog?!”
If the reader has a similar train of thought, the tension is already created. That question is the life blood of the story, and carries the reader onwards. I've read hundreds of short stories in my life, and all of the ones I have read till the end and loved, have lit a question in my mind.
Often a good prompt will create several ideas, and I have a rule that has served me well so far; never go with the first one. When I'm mulling over the question asked by the prompt, the first possible answer – and therefore story – that occurs to me may seem wonderful in the first instance, but it never is. There's a reason it pops up first; it's top of my creative mind, which invariably means it's residue from something I have recently consumed, or an idea that I have already played with recently, or just plain cliché dressed in different clothes. Either way, it's less original than I aim for and has to go.
Not every story has to be driven by an obvious question
Sometimes, a situation can be set up that is intriguing enough to simply make the reader curious. And that's good in anthology; if I started every single story with a “grab the reader by the throat” question, that would get very tired, very quickly. But a question does need to arise at some point, and if not a question, a desire to see some kind of change.
And that's another thing…
Something has to change in a short story (one that I write anyway) even if it is just the reader's perception of what is really going on (a.k.a. the twist). If I can set up a question, lead the reader to think that the answer is one thing and then reveal it is actually something completely different – without cheating – then I am most happy with my story. The best twists are the ones which are shocking, and then obviously what was happening all along – the ones that make you go back to the beginning and re-read the story knowing the truth, and smiling all the way through when you see all of the clues that were given along the way.
Now don't get me wrong, there are great short stories out there that don't create a question, and don't always create a change. They can simply be snippets of a person's life, told so beautifully that they don't need anything else, but in my experience, only the most superlative writers can pull that off. Not all short stories need a twist – not all of mine do, but they have to be satisfying.
All I'm saying is that the stories I most love to write, and the ones my readers most love to read, are the ones that beg a question and involve a change.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. What makes a short story great for you? Do your favourite short stories have anything in common?
About Emma Newman
Emma Newman has proven that book deals are indeed like buses. Her debut short story anthology, From Dark Places, is out now and her debut novel, 20 Years Later is being published in July 2011. Signed copies of From Dark Places are available from her website (http://www.enewman.co.uk/my-books/buy-a-signed-edition-of-from-dark-places) and if you like dark short stories, join Em's Short Story Club (www.enewman.co.uk/sign-up-for-free-stories) to get an original short story for free in your inbox every month.
Image: Flickr CC AndreaLeev