25 February 2022
Top tips on writing short fiction from the author of the acclaimed collection How To Gut A Fish
There’s an old quote about writing that says: 1) put your hero up a tree, 2) pelt stones at them, 3) get them down again as gracefully as possible. It’s one of those pieces of advice that sounds so convincing you find yourself nodding along ('show, don’t tell'? Revolutionary!).
But if you break that quote down, it’s not quite so simple. What kind of tree is it? Is it in a forest or an urban plaza? For that matter, why does my character need to go up it? Are they running, hiding, chasing or being chased? Then, what kind of stones to throw – igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic? Need they be stones, or would a heavy vase do? And, on the other side, getting down from that tree is a tricky business, which might involve a chainsaw, a rope or a safety net. It’s complex – there are a hundred decisions to make.
The beautiful thing about short stories is that you can take a slice of this process and zoom in. You don’t need to have all the answers – just enough to craft a short piece of fiction around a single moment, character or experience.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. What isn’t wide must be deep.
Sometimes, I read a short story by another writer – a little masterpiece – and I wonder: how? How did the author achieve that? How did they make me feel that lingering sense of connection, revulsion, redemption, wonder? Something magical must have happened.
But to write our own, that isn’t enough of an explanation. So, how to write a short story? I have often, with my head in my hands, begged the internet to answer that question (the title story in my book came from a frustrating familiarity with this how-to format).
Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. A story is a spark.
It is that moment of clarity that forces pen to paper, fingers to keyboard.
2. A story is an iceberg.
It is only the visible part poking out of the water; there is a whole other world just below the surface.
3. A story is a system.
Once it is set set running, it has to obey its own rules – narrative voice, perspective, setting, and timeframe are all cogs and wheels.
4. A story is a fractal.
The closer you look, the more complexity you see.
5. A story is a gut-punch.
There’s no time to let things simmer, so add spice liberally.
6. A story is detail.
Every word has to earn its keep; every description has to work.
7. A story is collaboration.
The reader does half the work; the writer is just hijacking their imagination.
8. A story is an arrow.
Aimed right at the reader. If they don’t react at the end, it wasn’t a very effective weapon.
9. A story is change.
The characters will never see the world the same way. If it’s very good, neither will the reader.
10. A story is confusing.
So is life. Read it again.
If all this sounds vague and pretentious, it probably is. Because the truth is, I’m not really sure what makes short stories work. I sit down and write a sentence, then another, and another. Eventually, a scene appears, and a character, and – if I’m lucky – a plot. Because, if there’s one thing I do believe, it’s that stories are born out of intuition.
This intuition comes differently for everyone, just as everyone’s brain works differently. One writer might see their characters clear as day, another might only see the rough shape of a scene, another just a handful of words or even a vague feeling.
That intuition is the patch of ground, and writing is about finding a shovel – a certain perspective, a way of looking at the world – and digging as deep as you can. Because even if the hole is shallow or badly shaped (which mine often is), it’s yours.
I like to think that if any of my fictional characters read the short story they appear in, they’d be furious. That’s not me, they’d say. You’ve gotten that all wrong. Because I’ve only told a fragment of a fragment of their lives.
And if you dig that same hole, with your own shovel, it will look completely different again.
Sheila Armstrong is a writer and editor from the northwest of Ireland. How To Gut A Fish (Bloomsbury, February 2022) is her first collection of fiction and she is working on her debut novel. www.armstrongsheila.com
Want to write a new short story in a week? Follow these seven steps set out by James McCreet.