Saturday, April 6, 2013

A short history of the short story... And how to write it

 Up until the 14th century, short stories were mainly used to convey religious morals. With Boccaccio's The Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the shift moved from the sacred to the profane by focusing on human folly instead.

The English short story changed from verse into prose in the 15th century, but it didn't really begin to emerge as a form until the 19th century when it took off among American writers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. In the UK, such writers as Thomas Hardy mastered the genre: his Wessex Tales (1888) was the first succesful short story by a British author.

Short stories went from strength to strength in the 20th century, partly because the rise in literary magazines and journals created a market for the genre.

The genre has suffered a bit of a decline in recent years. At least enough for writer Margaret Wilkinson to launch the Save our Short Story campaign in 2002. Join the fight and subscribe to the Endangered Species online anthology of stories by both known and new writers.

How to write a good short story?

1. Write
This might seem obvious, but no one has ever finished a short story without sitting down and actually writing.  I have a folder full of stops and starts on a handful of short stories and novels, but none of them are finished. So, do that. Write. Write every day and finish what you start.

2. Re-write
I know you think you’re finished when you write “The End” at the end of your newly minted short story. You probably are. But it’s possible, just possible, that there’s still a little bit of work left to do. Put it in a drawer for a week, and come back to it fresh. Suddenly you’ll see, if you’re at all like me when I write anything, all sorts of problems with it. You might also let a trusted reader see it. Get their feedback, try to listen to it with an open mind, and be willing to re-write.

3. Read
The only way to learn how to write a great short story is to read great short stories. Read them a lot and think about them. Try to work out how they work and why. Pick a writer whose work you love and see how their stories work. If you love witch stories, try the work of Roald Dahl or Diana Wynne Jones, and see if you can unpick their stories. They knew what they were doing.

4. Keep it short
We are talking about writing short stories after all, so keep it short. You probably only want a single plot line (the story) and a single point of view character (the person whose eyes we’re seeing the story though). Longer stories, novellas and short novels, can sometimes have subplots and more than one point of view character, but basically you only need one.

5. Make your story work
I don’t mean make it great. Of course you’re going to do that. What I mean is make your words count. Everything you write in a short story should do more than one thing. Setting builds character, voice advances plot, and so on. Look very carefully at each scene in your story. You won’t have many of them – this is short after all – so make sure each scene does more than one thing. Each scene should build setting, develop character and move the story forward.  Avoid scenes that only do one thing. You want to avoid your story being dull (which it was never going to be, but you know what I mean) and making sure your scenes are doing the heavy lifting helps.

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