I hosted a workshop on short story writing at this year’s Open Book Festival. Some of the greatest writers in the world are known for their short stories – Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Nadine Gordimer – and South Africa is home to some of the best.
I love short stories, writing and reading them, and wanted to share some tips for aspiring writers.
Here are my extensive notes, which include excerpts from some of my favourite short stories and my original research notes.
While I was preparing for the workshop, I got in touch with some writer friends to ask for their thoughts on short form writing.
Efemia Chela says:
“Short stories are like watching a perfect Olympic high dive. Lean and unforgettable, they slice knife-like through the consciousness and get past the reader’s defenses. It takes bravery to write them and lots and lots of practice to get it right. But once you do they are death-defying magic. A splendour to behold.”
Sarah Lotz says:
“Although they take minutes to read, great short stories should whack you around the head with an idea, concept or slice of life and leave you reeling and unsettled for months As there’s no room for waffle or lengthy exposition in a short story, the idea behind it has to be distilled to its purest form. When this is done right it can be potent.”
Diane Awerbuck says:
“Short stories make the strange familiar – and turn the familiar strange. They’re a shortcut to shock and happiness.”
Karina Szczureck says:
“A powerful short story is like a great fling, you don’t have to commit to a 500-page relationship to experience bliss.”
Niq Mhlongo says:
“If a novel is like an ocean, then a short story is a river that flows into it.”
The first excerpt I selected was from Mary Watson’s Jungfrau, which won the Caine Prize in 2006. It is a beautiful example of how even a simple domestic scene can result in the most incredible short story.
The Virgin spent hours in the bathroom every evening. Naked she walked to her bedroom, so lovely and proud she seemed tall; I followed faithfully, to observe a ritual more awesome than church. With creams and powders she made herself even cleaner for God. How he must love her, I thought. She spread his love upon her as she rubbed her skin until it glowed and her smell spread through the house, covering us all with the strength of her devotion. Then she went out, just after my father came home, and stayed out until late.
I must have stayed at the window for at least an hour. I saw the sea roar-smash-roar against the rocks. I saw the stillness of the midnight road, the white line running on towards the mountain. The road was empty; but then I saw two people walking up the hill. They walked slowly and closely in their midnight world. The walk was a stagger. They fell pleasantly against each other. I saw them walk towards the house and only then did I see who they were. When Jessica and my father entered the house, quietly and with the guilty grace of burglars, they were glowing from the wind and walking and waves and the wildness of the night’s beauty. The haze inherent in the darkness was centred around them. I looked on with envy, for I too wished to walk the empty night with them.
INTRODUCTION TO SHORT STORIES
I opened by asking the group what they thought were the defining characteristics of a short story.
- By definition, a short story is roughly between 1500 and 5000 words and features exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement. (Exposition is all the background information you put in, settings, back story etc. The denouement is the final stretch; those last few lines where everything comes together.)
- In its barest form, a short story has a beginning, middle and end.
- A story needs a strong beginning to hook the reader.
- The first line is very important. In her phenomenal lecture about the relationship between writer and the reader, You and I, Finuala Dowling argues that it’s usually the first line of a poem or the first sentence of a novel that is remembered and quoted most. The first line is the writer’s way of beckoning the reader over, inviting them to hear a good story. It’s a promise of something good to come.
“Call me Ishmael,” Moby Dick
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York,” The Bell Jar
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” Pride and Prejudice
- From the Guardian series on Rules for fiction writing, Jonathan Franzen says, “The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator. You’re telling them the story. Imagine you are, over a restaurant table, over a glass of wine. See yourself as the storyteller.”
- The beginning is also where you introduce your characters and set the scene. Engage the senses. What do they see, smell, hear?
- Hilary Mantel says this about description: “Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, part of character definition and part of the action.”
- To illustrate how description and action can be weaved together, here is the beginning of Comma, from Hilary Mantel’s short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.
I can see Mary Joplin now, in the bushes crouching with her knees apart, her cotton frock stretched across her thighs. In the hottest summer (and this was it) Mary had a sniffle, and she would rub the tip of her upturned nose, meditatively, with the back of her hand, and inspect the glistening snail-trail that was left. We squatted, both of us, up to our ears in tickly grass: grass which, as midsummer passed, turned from tickly to scratchy and etched white lines, like the art of a primitive tribe, across our bare legs. Sometimes we would rise together, as if pulled up by invisible strings. Parting the rough grass in swaths, we would push a little closer to where we knew we were going, and where we knew we should not go.
- The middle is where all the good stuff happens – the meat of the story. Two points to remember here are rising action and the importance of pacing. You’re building momentum and driving the story up to a turning point.
- The turning point is crucial. It’s literally the point where the story changes. Ask yourself, what has happened before this point? What has changed after?
- This is where the big reveal or twist takes place – the moment a reader will remember most. It could be humorous or sinister, or the point at which the character has their big epiphany.
One of my favourite examples of the big reveal is from a story called Jerusalem in Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, which follows a British couple on holiday in the holy city. In the beginning of the story, a tour guide tells the couple about Jerusalem Syndrome, the only location specific disorder. The only cure is to take the patient out of Jerusalem. Here is an excerpt from the middle:
They finished their coffee. ‘Shall we see how your wife’s feet are doing?’
As they walked up the narrow street, towards the hotel, Morrison said, ‘I’m really lonely. I work at a job I don’t enjoy and come home to a wife who loves me but doesn’t much like me, and some days it feels like I can’t move and that all I want is for the whole world to go away.’
She nodded. ‘Yes, but you don’t live in Jerusalem.’
The guide waited in the lobby of the hotel while Morrison went up to his room. He was, somehow, not surprised in the least to see that Delores was not in the bedroom, or in the tiny bathroom, and that the sheets that had been on the bed that morning were now gone.
They caught up with his wife on the Via Dolorosa. She wore a sheet, yes, but she seemed intent, not mad. She was calm, frighteningly so.
‘Everything is love,’ she was telling the people. ‘Everything is Jerusalem. God is love. Jerusalem is love.’
A tourist took a photograph, but the locals ignored her. Morrison put his hand on her arm. ‘Come on, love,’ he said. ‘Let’s go home.’
She looked through him. He wondered what she was seeing. She said, ‘We are home. In this place the walls of the world are thin. We can hear Him calling to us, through the walls. Listen. You can hear Him. Listen!’
Delores did not fight or even protest as they led her back to the hotel. Delores did not look like a prophet. She looked like a woman in her late thirties wearing nothing but a sheet. Morrison suspected that their guide was amused, but when he caught her eyes he could see only concern.
They drove from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and it was on the beach in front of their hotel, after sleeping for almost twenty-four hours, that Delores came back, now just slightly confused, with little memory of the previous day. He tried to talk to her about what he had seen, about what she had said, but stopped when he saw it was upsetting her. They pretended that it had not happened, did not mention it again.
- At this point in the story, you’re changing gear, and the action begins falling as you race down to the finish.
- You might be asking, what does the ending need to accomplish or does my story necessarily have to have an ending?
- The ending is important as it resolves the story and wraps it up for the reader. You’re coming full circle.
- Finish strong, and you’ll leave the best impression. The last words can be as important as the first.
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” Animal Farm.
Here is the ending of Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Caine Prize winning story, Poison.
Sooner or later, rescue would come. The ambulances with flashing lights, the men in luminous vests with equipment and supplies. Or maybe just a stream of people driving back home. But if rescue took too long, then there was always the black bicycle that she’d found leaned up against the petrol pump. The woman’s grandson must have ridden here, with the petrol can, from some place not too far down the road. It was an old postman’s bike, heavy but hardy, and she felt sure that if he had cycled the distance, so could she. Maybe tomorrow, or the day after. And when this was all over, she was definitely going to go on a proper detox. Give up all junk food, alcohol. Some time soon.
Lynn snapped open a packet of salt-‘n’-vinegar chips. Behind her, the last of the sunset lingered, poison violet and puce, but she didn’t turn to look. She wanted to face clear skies, sweet-smelling veld. If she closed her eyes, she might hear a frog, just one, starting its evening song beyond the fence.
GUIDELINES FOR WRITING SHORT STORIES
What are the rules?
- Read as much as you can. It’s the most important asset in a writer’s toolbox. Reading short stories is the best way to get inspired to write your own and it helps you become comfortable with the form.
- Adverbs are the devil. Instead of, She folded her arms crossly. Try to make it more natural. Don’t tell the reader she’s cross. Show it. Make it part of the action.
She folded her arms and lowered her lids, an expression she usually reserved for when I left wet towels on the floor.
- Keep your exclamation points under control! Also DON’T TYPE IN CAPS. Trust the reader to know when your characters are shouting. This goes back to the show, don’t tell rule.
- Avoid clichés as much as possible. Instead of using lines that a hundred other writers have used before, delight your reader with your own. Imagine if Edmund Blackadder (From Ben Elton’s Blackadder) used clichés to insult people. It wouldn’t be the same at all.
“Your brain for example- is so minute, Baldrick, that if a hungry cannibal cracked your head open, there wouldn’t be enough to cover a small water biscuit.”
“Baldrick, in the Amazonian rain forests there are tribes of Indians as yet untouched by civilisation who have developed more convincing Charlie Chaplin impressions than yours.”
- I love this quote from Kurt Vonnegut. “Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.”
- You want a character that resonates with your readers, someone to hold their interest and whose story they’ll find themselves wanting to follow.
- What does your character want? What’s stopping them from getting it? What do they have to do to get it? You have to answer these questions. Acting coaches will ask, What is your character’s motivation for their decisions? As a writer, you have to ask the same question.
- Make your characters as multi-layered as possible. Are they good, bad, a little of both? Shy, confident? Make them as real as possible on the page and they’ll come across as real to the reader. I always use JK Rowling as an example of an author who writes memorable characters. Take Seamus Finnigan for example. He’s a background character. If you remove him from the story completely the plot wouldn’t change at all, and yet, he’s so well developed you can’t imagine the story without him. You know he’s Irish, you know his mom was a witch and his father was a muggle (who got a nasty shock when he found out) You know what he looks like, what quidditch team he supports, you know what his mom can be like. You know he’s best friends with Dean Thomas. He’s brave, up for duelling lessons, and joining Dumbledore’s army. He comes across as real to readers.
Here’s an example from one of South Africa’s best. In his story, 101 Detectives, writer Ivan Vladislavic introduces a character the reader can’t help but want to follow.
He knew there were tricks – no – not tricks, techniques, there are techniques for getting to see what you’re not supposed to. Let’s say the register at reception in the hotel lobby. You drop the pen or you fake a cough and ask for a glass of water, and while the clerk is distracted you quickly turn the book your way and scan the page for what you’re after. Let’s say the room number of a particular person. Or let’s say the name of a particular person occupying a certain room the number of which is no mystery. He knew all that.
But as it happened, the counter was a slab of granite and there was no book to mar its smooth extension, not even a computer screen, which complicated things. Also there was nothing he needed to know. For now. He was simply waiting for the receptionist to give him his key and number so that he could go up to his room. This lack of knowing, or rather this lack of a need to know, made him feel less like a Detective. And the feeling rankled because he was unsure what kind of Detective he really was to begin with.
Write what you know
To illustrate the importance of research, I invited the group to take part in two writing exercises. I listed a few activities and asked the group to spend a few minutes describing an action they had never tried before (ie, sailing, archery, getting a tattoo, birdwatching). I then asked them to repeat the exercise, this time describing an action they knew well.
- Writing authentically and knowing your subject matter makes a marked difference in your writing. It is the difference between confident writing and I-hope-I’m-vague-enough-that-no-one-notices writing. Interestingly, most participants enjoyed the first exercise more.
- But doing your homework is important. Imagine the reader’s reaction to a paragraph that describes an experience they’ve been through themselves. That’s the level of engagement you want.
Find your voice
- What style are you writing in? First person present, omnipresent third? Write how you feel most comfortable. You’re the one telling the story, so you have to feel comfortable telling it. Imagine yourself as the storyteller sitting across the table from your reader.
- Don’t copy another author’s style. What’s important is that you come across in the writing, not someone else.
- The best advice I can give you is to read your writing out loud to yourself or a friend. You’ll often find that by reading your story out loud, your mouth instinctively wants to frame a sentence differently or replace certain words. Write down how you’d rather say it out loud, and you’ll find it reads much better too.
- When you put the final fullstop down after The End, know that it’s not really the end.
- Print it out, read it out loud, go through it with a red pen, think over it in the bath or on the drive to work. Ask a friend to read it and give you their honest feedback.
- Every story can be improved over several drafts. Lizzy Attree, director of the Caine Prize, who attended the workshop with my special guest, says redrafting and editing is vitally important, and some of the stories that she sees misses this important step.
In the second hour of the workshop, I was joined by this year’s Caine-Prize winner Bushra al-Fadil, a writer and poet from Sudan. His Caine-Prize winning story, The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away, translated by Max Shmookler, was first published in The Book of Khartoum – A City in Short Fiction and now most recently in The Goddess of Mtwara and Other Stories, The Caine Prize for African Writing 2017.
Bushra described his love for the short story as a way of using big ideas and speculative elements to describe what is happening in the world right now, especially in political situations. He spoke about his exile and life in Russia, the importance of writing in your own language, and how some things can be lost in translation. Bushra’s Caine Prize win is a wonderful example of how stories will find a way to be heard. His winning story was first written in Arabic in 1979. It was only recently translated into English, and was so powerful that judges couldn’t help but sit up and take notice.
It was an inspiring conversation.
Here is an excerpt from The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away.
The day was fresher than a normal summer day, and I could feel delight turbaned around my head, like a Bedouin on his second visit to the city. The working women were not happy like me, nor were the housewives. I was the son of the Central Station, spider-pocketed, craning my neck to see a car accident or the commotion of a thief being caught. I was awake, descending into the street, convulsing from hunger and the hopeless search for work in the ‘cow’s muzzle’, as we say. I suppressed my unrest. The oppressed son of the oppressed but despite all of that – happy. Could the wretched wrest my happiness from me? Hardly. Without meaning to, I wandered through these thoughts. The people around me were a pile of human watermelons, every pile awaiting its bus. I approached one of the piles and pulled out my queuing tools – an elbow and the palm of my hand – and then together they helped my legs to hold up my daily depleted and yearly defeated body. I pulled out my eyes and began to look… and look… in all directions and to store away what I saw.
Read the full story here.
Thank you to everyone who participated and showed interest in attending the workshop. I know it sold out quite quickly and not everyone that wanted to come could. I hope you’ll find these notes useful for your own writing. Please get in touch if you have any questions or if want me to run this or another workshop with your writing group.