By Gillian Hamer
Short stories are where my love of writing began. I’d sneak my gran’s Woman’s Weekly or People’s Friend into my bedroom, and lose myself in tales of romance, dark secrets or intrigue. Shorts were my first introduction to worlds and emotions I could barely imagine as an inquisitive, yet introverted child.
One day I thought … you know what, I reckon I can do that. And so began the tale of a beagle named Goliath and his adventures on an island called Geronimo. Goliath became a companion for many years. I used to draw his droopy ears and sad eyes, endlessly practising his signature. And so, several years later when I won my first writing accolade, age eleven (– a Blue Peter Badge for writing an episode of Grange Hill, I don’t think ever got screened.) … it was Goliath and his adventures I thanked.
Short stories are wonderful. If they’re done right. And that’s a BIG if. Getting the content balance right is crucial. Getting the POV to gel is difficult. And introducing characters your readers connect with in the space of a few thousand (or hundred) words is nigh on impossible.
I’ve read many books over the years bursting with practical advice. I've studied many How-To guides. And I’ve written many, many rubbish shorts. But it's a craft I have worked hard to succeed in. For me, balance is key. In almost every aspect of a strong, gripping short story it must be spot on. Here are some of my suggestions for achieving that perfect balance.
1. Read widely. As with novel writing, read lots of different short story styles by lots of different authors, from classic to contemporary. Study winning entries of important short story competitions (Bridport, for example) See what constitutes a prize-winning story and how you can make your own idea equally as compelling.
2. Simple plots and complex characters. Remember the famous tip from V.S Pritchett : 'A short story should capture a character at bursting point." Character is everything in a short story, you don't have time or space for complex, meandering plots so you must rely on killer characters to drive the narrative.
3. Content. Because of word constraints you need to compress content to the basics. This is easier if you plan before you start. Know where you want your story to end, and work at achieving the story arc in as succinct, yet fulfilling, way as possible.
4. Conflict and Change. These are the drivers of your storyline, Make sure you contain equal levels of both. Without conflict you have no story. If you have no story your characters fail to grow or change, and the story stagnates and dies. Getting this balance right is crucial.
5. What, when, where, who. Tick as many boxes as you can in your planning before you start to write. Who is telling your story? What is your theme? When and where are you setting it?
6. Pace. With fewer words to play with, you need to perfect your pace. Too fast and the story will lack depth; too slow and you'll bore the reader and lose drive. Learn to be succinct. Learn the power of suggestion. Allow your reader to use their own imagination and never, ever, over write.
7. Dialogue. Let your characters have their own voice, keep authorial input to a minimum. Allow dialogue to establish character, progress the story. Believable dialogue is vital and can turn an average short into a prize winner.
8. POV. Getting your choice of POV right is one of the most important decisions when planning. I tend to write most short stories in first person, present tense. Not usually a conscious decision, maybe that it feels more direct and immediate. Instinctively, POV often chooses itself, and it's no bad advice to go with your gut instinct.
9. Strong opening, stronger close. It is vital you hit the ground running and grab the reader's attention from line one. You do not have the luxury of easing the reader into a short story. It has to be instant. And a good closing punch line should stay with the reader. The closing line of a short story should be the BEST line.
10. Try something different. Break the mould. Drop the clichés. Experiment with your short story. A unique, unexpected voice can be compelling, so try something new. Write crime novels? Then try erotic shorts. Always write historical? Give sci-fi a chance. Short story writing offers a whole new world of experiences to a writer.