I love to read good short stories and relish the struggle of writing them too. I know when a story I read is good, but not when it comes to my own short stories. I know when I’ve missed the mark but I don’t often know why.
So I went on a short story writing course, to learn the rules if there are any. And it turns out, there are quite a few.
The course was run by CD Rose (a writer I rate – check out the wildly playful Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else) for indie publisher Comma Press. And it led eventually to my story What Do You Really Think Of Me, Really? being published in a nicely put together digital story collection titled Forecast.
For starters, we discussed what is a short story: a prose piece constrained and contained by theme and time. A significant event from a single perspective. A tiny perfect universe, to be read in a single sitting.
We looked at writers’ definitions: Frank O’Connor – a lonely voice, marginal characters on the fringes of society. Nadine Gordimer – the short story’s truth is momentary, discrete and fleeting. Lorrie Moore – a love affair, not a marriage. A photo not a film, a decisive moment. Murakami – soft shadows set out in the world, faint footprints, guideposts to my heart.
I learned there are different types of short stories, different styles that have come into, and fallen out of, fashion down the decades. William Boyd wrote a great piece on the seven different short story types nearly 20 years ago.
But the ones I most recognise, and that interest me most, are broadly as follows.
There’s the turn of the 20th century big guns, Poe, Chekhov, Maupassant. Up until then stories had straightforward beginning-middle-end arcs, often with a twist in the tail. Chekhov turned all that on its head, did away with plot for more realistic takes on life, with no judgements made.
In this realist mode – which inspired Carver and Cheever and Ford and others – part of the narrative is hidden and withheld, and when it finally drops into view it casts light on all that has come before it in the story.
Then there came the modernists – Joyce, Mansfield Hemingway – whose stories are opaque and contain hidden elements but whose characters struggled to a realisation by the story end. Instead of external events and conflicts resolved, all the revelations and resolutions are internal epiphanies, which may themselves offer unexpected discoveries or a twist in the tail, or an ending that brings insight.
Then the post-modernists – Calvino, Barthelme – whose stories were playful and self-referential.
There are a few other types too – stories with open endings that hinge on an image or symbol; stories that mash together ingredients that don’t usually go such as Kafka’s Metamorphosis surreal subject told in a realistic in tone – but for me these are the biggies and have helped me slot into place my view on some of my favourite short story writers and their work.
For the record, they are Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Richard Ford, John Updike, Thom Jones, Denis Johnson, Miranda July, Joyce Carol Oates, Will Self, Jon McGregor, Irvine Welsh, Martin Amis and Zadie Smith. Yes, mostly American.
During the course, we also learned lots of good stuff about plot, chronology and causality, conflict. We learned about Aristotle’s five ingredients: situation, complication, crisis, climax and resolution. We learned about escalating events and complications, then ultimately resolutions. Objects as symbols or images. Place, person and observation. Memory and imagination.
It’s brought new perspective to how I read and appreciate short stories, and how I try to write them.