Friday, 28 October 2011

The art of the Short Story.

I've been trying to figure short stories out for a long time. I've got a few volumes of short fantasy and horror stories knocking around my flat, and I've spent enough time reading them to have tried my hand at writing them.

But I also have my fair share of issues with short stories. The problem I've always had with a lot of short stories I've read is that they seem to forget they're actually a story. My issues with Booker Prize winners nonewithstanding, that style of writing doesn't fit the short story for. At the end of the day, a booker prize winner has a whole novel to tell their touching tale of a young Asian man scarping a living working as a prostitute on the back streets of Tamworth whilst simultaneously trying to act as the surrogate mother to a Panda cub they stole from the zoo.

Feel free to steal that one, by the way. It's as good as most of the pompous crap that booker prize winners come up with.

But when people try to fit those Oh-So-Clever ideas into a short story, then they end up being dull and disinteresting. Maybe thats the goal. Maybe they like subverting the genre. Maybe they lie pissing me, personally, off. A lot of short stories are like that, 'touching' tales of hardship, usually about people who have been touched. Either way, I read enough of that in University to know I don't like it.

So, horror and fantasy. They're the two Genres I primarily read short stories in, but the problem is that a lot of the time, especially in the horror genre, you seem to get writers who are more interested in showing how cleverly they can write than in telling their - usually quite interesting - tale.

So I've been thinking of some of the key points that I feel are useful in the construction of a short story. To come up with these, I revisited some old friends in the form of The Two Steves: Stephen King and Stephen Donaldson. This is just personal opinion, but I believe these two writers to be masters of the short story form in Horror and Fantasy respectively. I'll be making some references to their work in this little rant, and if you're interested, I suggest you seek them out, they're all good stories.

So, without further ado, here's Bendanarama's guide to the short story:

1) Length.

This may seem like a blindingly obvious point to make, but short stories need to be, well, short. AS far as I'm concerned (and this is something I disagree with Donaldson on) 50,000 words is way too much for a short story. 50,000 is well into Novella territory and, given the existence of "Tuesdays with Morrie" a borderline novel in itself. In my opinion, a short story is potentially anywhere from 1000 words to 25-30,000. That looks like a lot, but is actually quite a small amount of space, which leads me onto:

2) The Premise.

Again, it seems obvious, but it's very difficult to tell an epic tale of the wars of men in a short story. Pick a relatively simple premise, something that allows you to tell a story, but forces you to wrap it up in a short timeframe. In Stephen King's "Nightmares and Dreamscapes" collection, almost all the premises are simple: A couple comes to stay in an out of the way town, a finger begins to poke out of a drain, a vampire with a pilots license. All simple premises that give room to stretch the imagination.

3) The Characters.

You're characters will need to be clearly defined from the start. You don't have a hell of a lot of space to play with their backgrounds and motivations, so give us someone we can associate and recognise clearly. Don't be afraid to use the odd cliche here and there. Cliche's are what they are for a reason, and can be used just as effectively to your advantage as to your detriment: think cowboy movie: The Town Sheriff, The Unnamed Drifter, The Local Businessman. All recognisable archetypes of the Genre, all of which allow you to stretch them as characters in a short amount of space. Give your reader something to latch onto, and they'll repay you by paying attention to what you're writing. In Donaldson's story "Penance" the Main character is a remorseful vampire. You're damn right it's a cliche, but it's one played to brilliant effect in a fantasy environment.

4) Keep it Simple, Stupid.

Stop trying to impress people with your flowerly language. Seriously, this is one of my big bugbears - you've got a limited amount of space - use it to tell your story in a  manner that won't have your reader going "eh?" rather than trying to make the English language perform somersaults for your own self-gratification.

So yeah, I hope this little rant helps some poor person who chooses to stumble upon this blog after a random google search. It happens. In the meantime, I'll be writing my "Cowboys vs Werewolves" short story. Lets see how that works out.

No comments: