By Russel D McLean
I’ve just finished judging a short story competition in aid of the brilliant Million for a Morgue charity. I’m sure I’ve mentioned them before, but if I haven’t you should know that they are raising money for a great cause – to create a centre for forensic excellence in my adopted city of Dundee.*
It got me thinking about short stories. It’s no secret that I started out as a short story writer, and if you’ll forgive me a moment of indulgence, I’ll mention that I have a collection of some of those shorts out now in ebook form (go to my blog and check the sidebar if you’re interested - - I’m not doing the shill thing here – and let’s not forget there are two DSD short story collections out there, too) and that looking back on those stories I’m pretty impressed at my younger self’s ability to craft a good short.
Because it’s not an easy thing.
You’d think it would be. Unlike a novel, you don’t have to fill pages and pages. But in a sense that makes it more difficult. A novel gives you more leeway to breathe and relax. Which is great, but sometimes when you’re relaxed, you’re less likely to be focussed. With a short story, every word counts. Anything loose has to be cut.
And its tough to say in ten words what some novellists would say in around ten thousand. A picture may paint a thousand words, but in a short story you’ve only got those thousand to paint a hundred pictures and then add the dialogue as well.
To paraphrase Philip K Dick, you could open a novel at any page and chances are the characters aren’t doing anything interesting. But in a short story they have to be doing something. They don’t have the time not to.
And that’s tough to keep up.
That doesn’t mean short stories are all wham-bam tales of action. “Action” is an often misinterpreted word. Physical action and mental action can be equally thrilling as long as we are witnessing our characters doing something.
Some of the worst shorts I’ve ever read talk about things and never show them happening. They say, “There was this person, this was their life and this is what happened”. I’d rather fill in the gaps and be shown a moment, asked to make up my mind what happened around it.
In a short story, you learn about how to create shortcuts to character. You learn how to paint a picture, how to convey an emotion, in a few dynamic words. You learn about the value of implication over explication. You realise what your limitatations are as writer.
And you learn to overcome them.
Writing short stories is tough. I’ve seen established novelists who utterly fail when they try and write shorter fiction. Because it just isn’t easy. Because you can’t afford to waste time. Because you need to drive the heart of your story in only a few thousand words. You can’t mess about. You have to know what you’re writing about, what it is you have to say, what it is you want to convey. And you need to hit the reader slap-bang between the eyes with it.
The best short stories hit you hard and leave you reeling. They’re the literary equivalent of a sock in the jaw. You’re left reeling, but only later do you realise how much more there was to the experience than you realised, that it was a fuller and more intense experience than it seemed at the time. The best short stories linger.
The best short stories will leave their mark on you. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
*I’m not a native Dundonian, but I’ve been here over a decade now