Do you ever wonder what makes a standout short story? I don’t mean a decent, solid, pleasing story, I mean one that grips you by the collar, rattles your bones, pops your eyeballs out. Or one that seems innocent, even placid, but lingers and trails and sticks its fingers in your brain long after you stop reading. That kind of story.
I’m no writing expert. I don’t have formal qualifications in writing. My only claim is that I both read and write a lot of short fiction. So this is just my personal opinion. (Before I go on, I’d just like to clarify that I’m not addressing any basic story-writing concepts here, I’m presuming anyone reading is familiar with short story basics of a story arc, characters, plot, point of view, etc.)
There are so many options for reading short fiction. Stories are on Twitter and Facebook links, on blogs, on online literary mags. We can read print anthologies, story collections and lit mags. So if we’re going to give our time to a story, we’d like it to sparkle in a way that is new and intriguing. How does the writer do this?
I think every truly great story has something that sets it apart, a certain pizazz. That pizazz can be created in many different ways, but it makes the reader sit up, take a breath, or lean closer, thinking Oooh, this is different.
An exceptional story may contain:
An original setting. Instead of placing the main characters in your country, send them to Finland. Laos. Crete. Do your research, or use past experience if you’ve been lucky enough to live or travel overseas. If that sounds too tricky, consider a twist on familiar locations. A nudist beach. An alpaca farm. A city where all the traffic lights are flashing orange.
A strange turn of events. You may really want to write about a man sitting at his dying father’s bedside, and although that’s been done many times, it can still work beautifully if there’s another element, another storyline that adds depth and heightens the sorrow. Maybe while he’s sitting there, his father’s phone keeps ringing with crank calls from a scammer and maybe the son somehow ends up talking to the scammer at length, though not about his father. Something weird that adds to the story.
Humour. I don’t use this much myself, just the odd wry comment, because it doesn’t come naturally to me. But some writers do this so well, and funny stories are like precious gems. So often short stories are sombre or grim, and they don’t have to be this way. Laughing on and off through a piece of short fiction is so refreshing! For me, the best funny short stories are the ones that still have ‘heart’ – a message or meaning to go with the humour. I’m not a fan of stories that are odd or silly, just for the sake of it. I still need to be emotionally invested in some way. Julie Koh does this so well – her collection Portable Curiosities is a fabulous, innovative, very funny book.
A strong voice. Some stories hit you in the chest because right from the beginning the voice sweeps you away. The story is told with a confidence that has the reader spellbound. I think a distinctive or unusual voice is tough to pull off, especially for a beginner writer. No one seems to be able to define what it is, or how to achieve it, precisely. (I’m still working to find a clear voice in my short fiction, and I think only practice and reading more excellent writing will help.)
Passion. Sometimes it’s tempting to mimic other writers. I’ve fallen prey to that myself, thinking I need to write more political stories, or funnier stories, or a story about something more offbeat. When I’ve tried, fought against my own writing self, my stories have been awful. I say don’t try to write a story about a man who wears a tea cosy for a hat, unless you’re really excited and keen to write that story. Unless you have a whole backstory in your mind about that man and why he wears that hat, and you literally can’t wait to get it all down, forget it. Fantastic stories are written when we are drawn to write them, even feel compelled to write them. We’re curious or upset or horrified or scared, but for whatever reason, we must write that story. Often these stories turn out to be our best, and it’s hard to figure out why on a sentence level. We just know we poured out our hearts and minds.
These are the elements I find can take a story to the next level, but I’m sure there are many more. What are your tips?