Writing an Engaging Short Story
As a young short story writer, I'm always trying to learn from the stories I read - always hoping that I'll be able to extract universal lessons, especially in terms of structure. But while I know I'm learning a lot, all the time, I think it's actually really rare to be able 'borrow' another story's structure: every story has its own form and you can only discover that form by writing the story. So rather than seeking to learn anything concrete, what I'm increasingly trying to do is to cultivate the right instincts - to train myself to be alert to the things which work and the things which don't, and to figure out why that is. Here are a couple rules of thumb I've established for myself over the past year:
Trapping energy is about keeping a tight grip on a story's margins
Concentrate on energy
When considering structure I find it useful to think about a story's energy - how to create and trap it.
The first is usually done by introducing the reader to a character. I have never written a short story where I don't immediately do this. As I introduce my character and their voice I try to simultaneously introduce their 'need'. This is generally something which they don't have yet but which is in some way essential for them to acquire. I have written lots of openers before that have felt flabby and it's always because my characters' needs haven't spoken out clearly enough. If this feels too prescriptive, pause for a moment and think about the myriad forms a need could take. A character might need to make a journey, or escape a boring guest, or reconcile themselves with an impending event.
Trapping this energy is, in my experience, about keeping a tight grip on a story's margins. I don't introduce too many characters because I want my reader to invest completely in the ones that I have. I try not to wander, but to drive the story forward with every line I write. Which brings me onto my second rule:
Only write things which interest you
When I first began writing I was surprised by how easy it was to end up not doing this. I would become stuck on details which felt functional, necessary and boring. Often they were ‘transitions’ - sentences taking the reader from one moment to the next which I thought needed to be there. If a couple were talking in the kitchen, say, and about to go on a drive, then I thought I needed to describe them leaving the house and getting into the car. But I’ve read a lot of great short story writers this year, and the best skip nimbly across the top of a story, stopping only to illuminate the moments that matter along the way. Now, when I'm moving from one scene to the next and am finding it laborious, I stop trudging and leap to the next moment which excites me.
Short stories stand or fall by their endings.
To finish, something which I struggle with:
Short stories stand or fall by their endings, yet I find this the trickiest part to get right. Sometimes a story concept is bound up in its ending and the whole thing comes to you as one inextricably linked idea. In those cases, writing the ending isn't so tricky. But when that's not the case it can be very difficult feeling out the right moment to stop. One thing which I have found helpful recently is asking myself, 'What is the moment at the heart of this story? And have I finished evoking that moment?' If the answer is 'yes' then the story is over, and there is no need to take it any further.