Tania Hershman on how to write short stories
What is a short story? As a writer, I’d rather ask: What can I make the short story do for me? There is no entity called “The Short Story”, with a formula, a set word count, rules for starting and ending. My favourite writers make it their own, it’s such a joyous, flexible form, there’s almost nothing it “should” be – except short! How short? Who knows? For over a decade, I’ve been reading hundreds of short stories every year, published and unpublished, some that I love and some that didn’t work for me. On the first birthday of my collection, Some Of Us Glow More Than Others, Unthank asked me to share some thoughts on what a writer can make a story do for them.
The first thing is choice. It may take you an hour or a year to write a first draft – the length of the story is not proportionate to the length of the writing process, everybody does it differently. But once you’ve got something down, my philosophy is that EVERYTHING is up for grabs: where you start the story, where you end it, whose point of view you tell it from, whether it’s in first person, third person, second person etc.., which tense. These are your choices as the writer; each choice will change it, sometimes a lot, sometimes slightly. Of course, you may have hit on the elements you want in your first draft, but give yourself permission to do it if you need.
The second is: What can you leave out? For me, this sums up the beauty of short stories and the short story reader. I see again and again – and I’ve done it myself – stories where the writer includes everything she or he needed in order to write their way in to the story, to hear the character’s voice, to find out what happens. We so often have a run-up, a paragraph, a page or more, before our story takes off, and if this is a story I have been sent for critique, I will say: Here is where your story takes flight, do you need everything that came before? I suspect the answer is often: No. Also, your short story reader is clever. They know that what they are reading is going to be short, and they expect that you won’t tell them everything. Many readers hope you won’t, because filling in the gaps themselves engages their imagination, involves them in the story.
So, once you’ve found your story and you know where you want to begin it, at what point do you stop? I don’t believe it’s possible to have a great short story with a weak ending. A short story is all about “endingness”: the reading experience may well be one of utter absorption, but it’s going to be over soon. The best short stories are not great despite this, but because they understand what to use this short space for.
The conventional wisdom is that a short story ending should be “surprising yet inevitable”: if your ending is predictable, the reader who has made it that far may wonder why they bothered. But if the ending comes entirely out of the blue, and the reader can’t see how it could possibly have happened, they might also feel similarly. Ideally, it treads a fine line between these. Does that help?
Something that may be useful is an idea I got from Story, Robert McKee’s screenwriting bible, in which he talks about what a viewer is promised at the beginning of a film. For example, at the outset of Jaws, there is the promise that shark and policeman will meet. In When Harry Met Sally, if the two title characters hadn’t (spoiler alert) got together at the end, the writer Nora Ephron would have needed to give us a very good reason.
What are you promising a reader at the beginning of your story (including the title, which is vital in a short story, as in a poem, film etc..)? Are you creating tension by hinting that two characters are going to confront each other by the end? Or that we’ll find out why there is a dead body on the bed, or who sent the mystery text message? When they start reading a short story, a reader is grasping for clues as to who should they care about, where are we, what is going on? If you promise something in your set-up that never materialises you run the risk of losing your reader. It can be done – anything can be done – but you need to know you’re doing it!
Not only do you suggest what the story might be at the beginning, you’re also giving clues as to what genre it might be – love story/comedy/thriller/murder mystery/science fiction or some wonderful combination? While you don’t, as already mentioned, want to give everything away, you do want a reader to be intrigued enough to keep reading. It’s a tough line to tread. Most of us over-explain, and this, perhaps, is something that comes with experience, both of writing and of being read: you know how little you can get away with.
The thing is, no-one ever has to read your story (unless you’re paying them, or you’re related to them). It’s your job to grab them at the beginning, never giving them time to think, Do I want to carry on …? But you can do this very very quietly, and this is the point I’d like to finish on. You don’t need to have Big Issues, the written equivalent of car chases, in your story in order to make it compelling – War, Death, Cancer, Earthquakes, Alien Invasions, Divorce etc… Like a poem, a short story can be most powerful when it focusses in on something tiny and uses that to illuminate the odd wonderfulness of this life we find ourselves living, of the human condition. A short story is rarely about what the short story seems to be about, it’s your way of talking about the things that are important to you, through your characters, what happens to them and how they react to what happens to them. Take the short story, make it your own, see what magic it can do for you.
Tania Hershman’s third short story collection, Some Of Us Glow More Than Others, was published by Unthank Books in May 2017, and her debut poetry collection, Terms & Conditions, by Nine Arches Press in July. Tania is also the author of a poetry chapbook, Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open, and two short story collections, My Mother Was An Upright Piano, and The White Road and Other Stories, and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion (Bloomsbury, 2014). Tania is curator of short story hub ShortStops (www.shortstops.info), celebrating short story activity across the UK & Ireland, and has a PhD in creative writing inspired by particle physics. Hear her read her work on https://soundcloud.com/taniahershman and find out more here: www.taniahershman.com