This week I’m giving away a free edit for up to 1,000 words of your work – it could be a complete story, an extract from something longer, or several flash fiction pieces. Simply leave a comment for a chance to win.
As the old saying goes, one man’s meat is another’s poison, and that can be applied to most things in life, including reading choices. Ditto writing. Every writer has his or her own style and chooses how to write about a particular subject, but I firmly believe that great short story writing depends on certain ingredients that don’t vary, regardless of the genre, writing style, or subject matter. What follows is a subjective, personal take on what I think a writer needs to do to make a good story great.
Think about structure
A number of successful writers and creative writing teachers will tell you a story doesn’t need a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m afraid I disagree. I don’t mean that it must have a chronological progression – jump about in time by all means if it suits your purpose, neither do I mean that it must have three parts of equal word length. However, I do think a story must have a structure which satisfies the human brain. I believe that we are wired for the three-act structure when it comes to storytelling and this can be achieved as follows:
(a) Start well by establishing who we are with, where and when, ie, setting the story up – I think a strong image is the best way to open a story and draw the reader in immediately. There is no need for a long pre-amble or background info – this section could be just one paragraph that drops the reader directly into the story which is about to unfold.
(b) The main body of the story will deal with the principle character’s problems or concerns and should contain some kind of climax and/or turning point which changes things – it doesn’t need to be high action drama, but the reader must latch on to the central dilemma and feel for the character/s and what he/she/they are going through.
(c) The ending of the story should satisfy the reader, but it doesn’t have to be happy, neither does it need to have a clever, surprise twist, although both of these are options. Instead, I prefer gentle endings which resolve and reflect, having explored deeper themes through the character’s experiences. Since there’s no need to make each of the three (seamless) sections the same word length, the ending could be just one paragraph, but a highly crucial one which seals the story, confirming how great it was to read.
Opening and closing sentences are crucial in a short story and are probably what I edit the most before submitting a piece. I can’t remember who said this, but it stuck with me with regard to the structure of a short story – ‘Start in the middle and end with a new beginning.’
Make something happen
There’s a clue in the word ‘story’ – a great one should actually have something happening, some action, whether it is of the everyday or the swashbuckling variety. What happens incorporates plot and just because it’s short fiction, it doesn’t mean you don’t need a plot, some intrigue. I’m sorry, but writing about a character standing looking out a window at his garden and reminiscing about his youth or describing a lost love, is not conducive to a gripping short story. Neither is paragraph after paragraph of descriptive detail about an event from which the character is removed, no matter how poetic that may be. Poetry is poetry and a short story should be a story.
Hone the details/descriptions
Despite what I said above, every great story needs some descriptive detail to put the reader in the scene with the character/s. Words are limited in the short form, so choose them carefully – try not to use twenty words to describe the broken shards of glass on the floor when a well-chosen five will do. Also, avoid repetition – it slows down the pace. Again, descriptions are something which require much editing, so scrutinise them, change any mundane adjectives and cut out the lazy clichés. Give your reader something to remember.
One of the best ways to reveal character, emphasise tension or other moods, is the dialogue. But it needs to be realistic – use it well and your story will come to life and the reader will feel like he/she knows your characters, is in the room with them, sharing everything. Dialogue is also a great way to bring in backstory, but again, think about how people actually speak to each other, often in clipped sentences and no-one, absolutely no-one ever says, ‘Well, as you know Rupert, Daphne and I were married for twenty-five years so …’
Editing means cutting
I have one student in a creative writing group for whom editing always means writing more. No! The first draft will inevitably need cuts and whilst, yes, you may suddenly come up with a great idea for a short scene which aids the plot, or a killer snippet of dialogue, in general editing means shortening. With this in mind, I’d say it’s a huge mistake to try to write to a certain word count because a particular competition is coming up. Plan the structure of your story, write the beginning, the middle, and the ending in whatever order suits you, but expect there to be superfluous words floating about that have got to go. Editing is hard work and it requires a reading and multiple re-readings of each and every sentence to fine tune it, slim it down and make it as sharp and direct as it can possibly be. First and last sentences come to mind again!
So, those are my tips to help make a good story great. If you agree, disagree, and/or have any to add, please leave a comment. Everyone who comments will have their name entered in a draw to win a free edit of up to 1,000 words of their work – it could be an extract from a longer short story, a complete short piece, or several flash fiction pieces. The deadline is midnight (GMT) on Friday 9 October 2015.