Before we start, I’ll let you into a little secret… writing short fiction is hard. VERY hard.
January 2020, (before you know what happened) a friend of mine sent me a link to a short story competition. She said I should give it a go, and why not! 3,000 words, how hard could it be?
Well, to put it lightly, it was the very definition of a headache. How, I wondered, can anyone create a self-contained story in so few words that is able to live, breathe, and inspire readers to dismantle the patriarchy, or… you know, whatever? I hadn’t a clue! I certainly didn’t have time to answer this invaluable question in time for my first competition (RIP me, my ego, and the story about talking raindrops) but no matter, I’d got the bug. I’d fallen in love with writing short fiction.
Perhaps it was its toughness that I fell in love with. Tough, it transpires, forces you to learn things in three days that might otherwise take you three years. Tough tests you, questioning just how into this whole writing thing you are. Tough shows up to the party with a placard that clearly reads; All I want to do is have a cocktail, do a boogie, and be home before midnight. Tough won’t budge until it gets exactly that.
I’ve been writing short fiction for just over a year now. And still, my cocktail isn’t always mixed right, sometimes I’m dancing to Lady Gaga when clearly the vibe is calling for Shania Twain, and sometimes the earliest I can manage to get home by is 1am, which might as well be 4am, let’s not lie to ourselves. But at least I get home each time. And next time I go out, I get home a little earlier, having boogied a little harder and mixed more coconut into my piña colada.
And that’s the thing. Short fiction is short (…no sh*t Sherlock!). You could write fifty short stories in the time it takes you to write one novel (maybe, I don’t know, I haven’t tried, maybe I should!) In many ways, short fiction is easier than writing a novel because it’s over so quick. And it has you wanting to do the whole thing again and again and again, learning the craft of storytelling, learning how you like to write, crucially. It’s a bit addictive, to be totally honest. But it’s brilliant. Honestly. Try it.
But how do you do it? Disclaimer: I’m still learning (that’s what an MA is for right?!) But the tips below are what I’ve learnt over the past year, hopefully helpful to those of you who are just starting out. Short fiction wants what every other story wants, but quicker, simpler, and with less of the fluff. That doesn’t mean it can’t be grand, fanciful, or ridiculous. Write your short story about an alien invasion, absolutely, but write only about that. The key is to keep it contained and stick to the rules of all stories. The rest is up to you.
Things Every Story Needs:
A Beginning, a Middle, and an End.
The Cocktail: Every story has to start somewhere and in short fiction you need to start it quick, in the first sentence ideally, or even in the title. Get that ball rolling ASAP, introduce the conflict, or the inciting moment immediately. Grab your reader and tell them THIS IS WHAT THIS STORY IS GOING TO BE ABOUT, so that they’ll immediately reply, ‘well hey, this sounds great!’
The Boogie: Something has to happen, you can’t skip straight from beginning to end. There has to be some kind of conflict, some want, some desire, some movement in some direction that keeps the reader hooked. Something must stop the beginning from getting to the end. That’s a story.
Home Before Midnight: But, at some point, the story must end. Ideally, it will arrive safely home, snuggle up in bed with a hot water bottle, and fall fast asleep, the end. This finality is one of the key differences between a short story and a chapter. A chapter offers links to the next chapter and beyond, threads that continue the story on. Short fiction, however, doesn’t have another chapter. The alien invasion ends here. Mr. Flower realises he’s actually a toad. Bob finally gets that cup of coffee he’s been wanting all morning. And yes, most stories do end with some questions left unanswered, a life still being lived, the promise of waking up tomorrow morning. But this story, the story about Bob wanting a cup of coffee, is complete.
My top tip: try free writing your entire story in one go. You’ll often find yourself naturally creating the beginning, the middle, and end anyway, bringing everything to a close when you get tired. After all, we all know how stories feel, we’re brought up on them, it’s only those critical brains of ours that try to convince us otherwise!
Bob. An alien. Mrs Dickenson. This character needn’t be a human being, it can be a cat, the wind, Mould. Your character could also be a group of people, so long as they have a characteristic that binds them together; a ballsy group of environmental protestors, a table of bored poker players in the corner of the pub, hard-done-by mums setting off to sea on their partners’ yachts. Regardless, every story must have someone doing something.
My top tip: try to keep your character count to two, at a push three in total (a group of people can count as one of these ‘characters’ so long as you keep them as a group). Any more than that and you’ll struggle to dedicate enough time or space to explore them and their significance to the story.
Someone doing something must happen somewhere. But, don’t let that stop you from imagining the wide variety of possible places! Tesco, Brighton, the moon, within someone’s brain, online, in the air, anywhere! As long as it’s somewhere, so the reader has some place to tie your words and story to.
My top tip: keep descriptions to a minimum – use one sharp and specific detail that indicates something much larger. A stripy sock on the end of his radiator. A cluster of nails piled at the end of a desk. Two birch trees, and a sunflower, wafting.
Titles are so important! Firstly, the title is the reader’s first introduction to your piece. It may determine whether or not they’re interested in reading on. A title also frames the piece. Be conscious of what frame you’re putting it in, don’t use something antique and golden if the painting is a Damien Hurst. Or maybe do! That’s art, right?!
Whatever title you choose, pick something unique. ‘Family’ sounds, frankly, boring. ‘I’m a Sugar Daddy’, however, screams I’m a dangerous story – so read me! Pair that title with a story about a family of sweet makers and you’ve got yourself… a reader at least. Perhaps not the nobel prize. But it intrigued you, didn’t it? So it worked.
Here is a VERY useful list of overused short story titles. Avoid these at all costs.
And finally, the title offers a few extra words in an already constrained word count. So use them gosh darn it! What have you got to lose!?
Now, this is only the beginning of what I’ve learnt in a year, and there’s a high chance that I may have missed out some other key features of writing short fiction. By all means, tell me! You might even disagree with what I’ve said (how dare you!). But what I can say is that this whole process of learning how to write short fiction has taught me how to write, full stop. Not to get soppy and all, but writing short fiction was how I fell in love with writing, everything before this was just a hobby. Now I’m serious. So give it a go, maybe you’ll have a soppy romance with it too!
And before you tell me that none of this is possible, no one can cram all of this in in 3,000 words, let alone 100 words… Bah Humbag I say to you! I’ve two examples that prove I’m right!
First, Lydia Davis. The QUEEN of flash fiction. Here is a gorgeous story of hers that is under 500 words.
And finally, Ernest Hemmingway. A man who managed to do all of the above (without a title) in 6 words. How? I don’t know. But he did. Microfiction at its finest:
“For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.”