Short stories – is there a winning formula?

In the world of publishing, there’s not much demand for short stories. Why? Because short story collections don’t sell as well as novels. Yet certain countries – including Ireland, America and Canada – have short stories in their blood, their cultural identity and still have a healthy attitude towards the art form.

Mary Costello's excellent collectionIn recent years, there have been incredible collections from writers such as Mary Costello, Kevin Barry, Deborah Willis, Alexander McCleod and David Constantine (a limited list but just a sample). There are some excellent short story competitions out there, like the Bridport Prize, Fish Prize, Francis MacManus and Seán Ó Faoláin to name but a few. Then there’s the excellent Cork International Short Story Festival, where the genre is celebrated.

It’s great to know that the short story is not a dying breed, but how do you go about writing a damn good short story?

Personally, I struggle with short stories. I find them at once infuriating, enticing, frustrating – in other words, they’re challenging. But what writer doesn’t like a challenge?

Recently, I was shortlisted for a noteworthy competition in Ireland and this meant I got to hear my story read out on radio by an actor. Of course, I was excited by the result, but I didn’t realise what an impact the overall experience would have.

Hearing the recording provided me with distance from my story so I could listen to it with fresh ears, rather than as something I’d written. I could also hear how someone else might read/approach/interpret it through the intonation in the actor’s voice. I always read my own writing out loud to spot errors and weak sentences, but it was completely different listening to a stranger read your words.

Most importantly, the overall experience also did something else: it made me raise the bar. I realised (without reluctance) that the next few entries I’d prepared for submission weren’t up to scratch. They needed time to mature. They still do.

This is a steep learning curve in the early stages of writing. I’ve come across many enthusiastic new writers complaining about the ever-decreasing ‘competition fund’ and lack of results. They worry that their work isn’t being read/understood/given enough of a chance. When in fact, the work probably just isn’t ready yet.

I’m not belittling their concerns or their work; indeed, I was one of those people a few years back. But something changed. It’s called writing maturity.

After several rejections, a smattering of near misses and a growing pile of longlists and shortlists (but never a win), you find your impatience simmers down, your arrogance bows its head and you start to focus on what really matters. Quality not quantity.

You worry less about the amount and frequency of competitions you enter and concentrate instead on getting it right. After a while, you realise that submitting one, really really good story in a year and having it recognised by the judges is far better than bashing out ten mediocre attempts that wouldn’t make it past the preliminary stages.

You may have a beautiful worded story but is it gripping enough? The opening might be a corker, but does the end deliver? Is the piece wordy just for the sake of it? Or does your favourite character (because it’s secretly revenge against that irritating neighbour/aunty/teacher that told you you’d never write) let the narrative down?

Writing, like anything else, needs time to develop, mature and improve. And this will never stop. You can always learn something new, try a different style, be more focused or more productive. But as your writing career develops, you begin to see your way more clearly. You can eke out troublesome characters, plot blips and unconvincing dialogue. Even if you can’t manhandle the meddlesome toads into something worthy, then you can at least spot them in time (before you send your work for submission and increase the risk of hitting the rejection pile).

So is there a winning formula for writing the perfect short story? I don’t think so. You just need to read lots of excellent examples and let them teach you. Then you have to write the very best short story that you can.Then try and write it better again.

And if it isn’t the very best it can be in time for the competition/submission deadline you had your eye on, impatience won’t get you anywhere. There’s always another year or another competition around the corner.

Bees do have a smell, you know…

Summer is upon us – clear skies, soaring temperatures, vegetable plants blossoming (or bolting, if you’re unlucky like we have been with our spinach) and the mackerel are starting to come into shore.

What I love most about summer is the bustle. The days are long and there’s so much to do when you’re living rurally, there’s a certain magic to the season, an extra bit of pep. My favourite quote about summer sums it up pretty nicely:

“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”
Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

Beautiful, isn’t it?

Inevitable, this extra bustle requires extra effort on my part, so I’m reducing my blog posts to once a fortnight until the hay, animals and vegetables are happy and well. Hopefully, you won’t mind! And just in case, here are a few summery photos to put a smile on your face…

summertime in rural west cork

Taking hay to the island by punt

grow your own cabbage - it's delicious!

Early cabbage – survived the caterpillars (just)

water safety - wear your life jacket!

Always time for fishing if the conditions are right (life jacket not optional)

Shrimp pots, west cork

Make sure your shrimp pots are weighted enough!

Fishing boat, photo taken from the sea

Nice to see the big fishing boats in

Franklyn at sea

And everyone loves a seadog!

red and black moths, west cork

Look out for these gorgeous creatures – a bit extra summer colour

From Script to Screen: A Masterclass with Jack Gold

Ever wondered how you take a short story and turn it into a film?

Although I don’t write for screen, I write short stories, and the idea of watching the next step in any creative process intrigues me.

Luckily, I had the chance to attend this outstanding, fully interactive workshop with British film director Jack Gold – and I thought it only fair that I should share some of the key elements for all the short story writers, film makers and film watchers out there.

Jack calling the shots (literally)

The story: Dusky Ruth by A E Coppard

The setting: a church hall, with a crowd of 200+

Equipment: Jack Gold, two local actors (one male, one female), a pipe, a camera man & camera, a stage hand, 2 chairs, 1 entrance door, a lighting technician

The process: The audience was given a printout of the story beforehand to familiarise themselves with the tale. Then, after Jack’s short introduction, it was straight to work.

The section that Jack chose to demonstrate the filmmaking process with (when the man returns to the room and the woman doesn’t respond) over the course of the next four hours was purposely dialogue-free. Encouraging audience participation from the start, Jack asked:

If you don’t have dialogue, how do you get inside the heads of the people watching?

The audience concluded that expression, lighting and mood were the key elements. But what we couldn’t figure out was what made it work. As a writer, I should have realised that editing was the key. Jack explained:

Filming a piece like this is a jigsaw. You film the links in the chain – both big links and tiny links – and then join that chain. Editing is fundamental to storytelling, in whatever medium you’re telling the story.

He went on to discuss and identify the ‘hingepoint’ of the piece – where the action takes off in a different direction – and then demonstrated the critical thinking required of any film maker. The first problem posed:

Where do we place the chairs so that the character can do all the things required of him in a way that’s beneficial to the audience through the camera?

This was much more difficult than you may think; every time we thought we had it covered, we’d realise that there was an action or a response that didn’t fit.

Once the positioning of the props was correct, Jack went on to direct the actors on the spot, questioning the audience throughout and spending the required amount of time to get each action and shot exactly right. Similar to writing a story, the number of takes or ‘redrafts’ was astounding – the pace, mood, position, action, expressions all had to be perfect, along with the camera angles and lighting. Even some of the tiny links – such as the actor pausing in a doorway – had to be shot a total of twenty one times before the take was right.

As well as considerations for plot and action, Jack also talked us through camera tricks (such as contrazoom) and film making techniques that would enhance the film’s overall impact, enabling the film to capture the essence of the written original.

How can we emphasise the strange yet sensual moment when the stranger approaches the seated woman he’s never spoken to, who hasn’t acknowledged him, and undoes her hair clasp?

The conclusion: physical space and pace, physical speed and subtle gestures which are magnified on camera if you zoom in.

One of the most intriguing things highlighted in the session was the treatment of the female character. She didn’t move at any point during the scene. Her sole role was to gaze into (an imaginary) fire without looking up or changing expression. However, as a parallel to silent characters in fiction writing, her presence was of high importance throughout. Her internal dialogue was indicated by lighting, camera movement and zooms and the reaction of the male character, rather than any actual response of her own. As Jack demonstrated, a fast pace and lots of action isn’t always necessary.

You can have all the rhythm in the world, but if you’re not telling the story, there’s no impact, there’s nothing to watch.”

After acting out and shooting the jigsaw pieces, Jack then adjourned the session to put together the pieces so he could demonstrate the editing process. During this session, the audience were shown how certain sections were cut, joined, overlapped, altered and finalised. Of course, this was just a taster. To create a polished full length short film in a few hours would be impossible.

In Jack’s own words; “The first assembly part alone could take months. Every piece has to be exact. Film making is like storytelling; it takes so long because it’s a ceaseless search for perfection.

It may have been just a glimpse of what’s needed to turn a story into a film, but there was certainly lots of information to take in and take away – most of which applied to storytelling in general, not just on film.

Some of Jack Gold’s tips:

  • A director, like a storyteller, needs an eye for detail and to be able to see all elements at once with an overall idea of what is needed from the very beginning.
  • If you’re transforming from script to screen, optical effects replace descriptions – so ignore necessary details from the story.
  • The adjustment of the camera should work with the actor, enhancing interaction, mood and pace.
  • The order you put each shot is the essence of storytelling, the essence of film.
  • Sometimes, what the audience expects next is not what you give them.

Please note: This is just a taster of the four hour session. I’ve transcribed the actual event so if you are working on a project like this and would find more information useful, please let me know.

Characters

Our dog Shrimppot is a real character

Aristotle concluded that story is superior to character. In the 1800s, many thought that structure was simply a way to convey the fascinating characters that readers desired. But, as fiction continues to evolve, where do we stand today?

Looking at this from a writer’s perspective, I’ve recently realised that all of my novel-length pieces of work begin with character names/personalities; these create the initial spark that gets ideas flowing. The plot, the tension, the outcome – they all start to come alive as soon as a cast of names form in my head and are allowed to interact on the page. But when it comes to writing short stories, I get a sense of the mood that I want to convey first, and the characters come later. In fact, sometimes the characters come so late, I have to put the story aside for a very long time before they enter stage left.

Weird that both genres should be approached so differently – and weirder still that I’ve only just realised that this is how I work. So I decided to do a bit of investigating to try and understand what’s making me/my characters tick. Here’s my thoughts on some of the great advice that I found:

The best characters stay with readers and listeners long after childhood is over. Think about the qualities that make a character stick with a picture book’s audience long after the book is shut.” (Ann Whitford Paul, Writing Picture Books, p54)

  • Absolutely. I love children’s books and am in the process of writing some – they really make you think about the character on a larger-than-life scale because you’re trying to connect with the simplified, overly-honest viewpoint of a child. That character had better be memorable!

True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature… The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling. (Robert McKee, Story, p 101/4)

  • I find this easier to achieve in a novel when you have more room to develop your characters – which is probably why my characters come first and the plot second (in terms of development, not importance).

The function of structure is to provide progressively building pressures that force characters into more and more difficult risk-taking choices and actions, gradually revealing their true natures, even down to the unconscious self…The function of character is to bring to the story the qualities of characterization necessary to convincingly act out choices. (Robert McKee, Story, p 105/6)

  • Again, although this fits with all genres, I find this easier in a novel-length piece. The format (in my world) lends itself to more exploration and I find the structure/characters fuse more easily

The best modern short stories convey information by suggestion rather than by fact. Try to use suggestiveness and gestures to give a sense of character and story.” (Patricia O’Reilly, Writing for Success, p72)

  • I find this challenging. Perhaps this is why the plot comes first when I’m writing short stories?  Maybe I need to give myself a sense of character before the character becomes real? This can’t be a universal approach, so I’d love to hear how other writers tackle short stories.

As a writer, how do you handle your characters? And does your approach change if you switch genre?

Gustav Dore conveys character beautifully