I did a workshop on short story writing for the Federation of Writers (Scotland) recently, and I thought I’d put down a few notes on it here.
I began with some thoughts on making a start on stories; some of the things that might work to trigger a story. I took in some everyday props – a phone, a pebble, a clothes peg, a cork, a small key, a book of stamps, an envelope addressed ‘To Whom It May Concern’. Concrete objects often work well as starting points, because they don’t exist in a vacuum; they have associations with people, places and events.
I suggested that writers might want to start with a snatch of overheard conversation, and I recounted an actual conversation I’d heard on the train through from Edinburgh that morning. I couldn’t have made it up, but I know I’ll use it in a story.
Moving on to the actual writing, we did a couple of exercises which led to a focus on the first two sentences of a story, the ones which pull the reader into reading the rest of the story. I compared it to beach volleyball, where the first one sets up the point, and the second one spikes it. This is something I’ve been thinking about since I attended a workshop in Dunbar led by Catherine Simpson. It made a strong impression on me; I use it in some of my own stories, and I find it in others. I read out the first two sentences from some of the stories in a recent issue of Gutter magazine, so that the group could see how effective the technique is.
Most stories are character-driven, and creating characters a reader can believe in is crucial to the reader’s involvement with the story. Readers can like or dislike characters; but they have to be interested in them. So we did exercises in building characters from descriptions, and how they might interact in a narrative.
We discussed point of view – first person, third person, omniscient third person and so on. Who is the narrator in your story, and how does that affect what can and can’t be related? A first person narration, for instance, can’t describe what’s going on inside another character’s mind, just what can be observed. I suggest that writing in active voice, rather than passive voice, makes the narrative stronger.
Dialogue was the next topic. It’s often said that dialogue is not true speech, but a semblance of it, and we looked at ways in which dialogue in a story differs from everyday speech. Dialogue takes the action forward; description slows it down. A story which is all dialogue becomes a play script, only needing directions to turn into a play. There are too many examples of bad dialogue – written, or in television or film. Dialogue should resist the urge to explain, which is part of the familiar ‘show don’t tell’ paradigm.
We talked about continuity; keeping track of characters, objects, scenes and actions. It’s sometimes easy to get lost in the urge to keep the writing moving forward, but it’s important to know where your characters have been, and what they’ve done.
Story structure is important. Whether or not you follow the conventional three-part structure of beginning, middle and end – or opening, development and denouement – or you decide to branch out and do something different, your story should follow an arc, a narrative line.
Endings are at least as important as beginnings. Does your story finish with closure, or do you leave it open-ended? Some writers like ambiguous endings, letting the reader construct an ending in their own minds. It’s up to you.
Word counts are important if you are aiming to place your story in magazines or competitions, and each opportunity will have its own guidelines.
Finally, we dealt with the important business of editing and revising. There is no story which couldn’t be improved by revising it, but there’s the risk of overworking a story so that its original energy is lost. At some point you have to let go of it, tell yourself you’ve done enough.