Anastasia Parkes is an author of erotica who also – shh! – writes literary fiction. Here she describes her tips for writing successful short stories. You can find her most recent collection here. You’ll also want to take a peep at some of our other short story advice.
Churchill described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. A short story shouldn’t trip you up or leave you in the dark, but it should encapsulate the magic of a critical moment within a life, and all, as Jamie Oliver says, in 15 minutes!
The constraints of time and space are actually liberating. They permit, even challenge, the writer to use its tight structure to create a character’s history. Their past, intense present, and the hint of a future. Some stories are left hanging on a cliff edge, leaving you wondering or guessing what comes after. That is fine so long as it isn’t too abrupt, or inexplicable. Why alienate your readers by frustrating them? Rather, leave them intrigued, wanting more and especially more from you. Some stories have a twist in the tail which is glorious especially when used in horror stories, but equally effective in a supposedly every day situation. The end should be satisfying but not necessarily trite.
Take inspiration from a snapshot in the street or out of a train window, a note or comment from your own life, news from the world around us, a crazy, sad, mad, mundane idea plucked out of an over-active imagination. So, an awkward family gathering igniting a forbidden passion. An adulterous weekend trashed by a message from home. A crippled woman giving hope to the able- bodied. Nick what you’ve seen or imagined, dress it, trick it out in technicolour or monochrome depending on the mood you want (I also have a cinematic commentary in the back of my mind when writing). Then load it with drama and potential, propelling it, with the tools of a handful of bright characters and realistic, relevant dialogue, in the direction of and into whatever conclusion you want for it.
So far the only novels and short stories I have published have been erotic (see my other blog, Primula’s Progress). But the build up, climax, resolution and afterglow analogy of sex – the outline structure I have already mentioned, in fact – is equally useful for any story telling arc.
You have around 6,000 words, though there are no rules except in competitions (like this or this), and more experienced writers will restrict their word count to a handful, or expand their story to a novella.
So, you’re allowed to, indeed you should, hit the ground running. Place your character straight into the heat of their dilemma or crisis. This can be like plunging into a cold bath, or stepping more tentatively, but the central crux must fairly quickly be visible. The deceptively leisurely approach makes a later shock all the more unexpected.
The golden rule is show, not tell. So paint a picture through scenery and smell, sounds, clothing, even food, to create the atmosphere. Some initial introspection can be helpful to introduce a character’s thoughts, their modus vivendi, but not through an over-arching voice that tells us what to see and how to respond.
To avoid the domineering narrator a more dynamic technique is showing a protagonist’s interaction and genuine responses, however brief, with their surroundings and other characters. This will flesh them out and make them three dimensional, make us love or loathe them. Dialogue, used skilfully, is an essential tool to reveal what is happening and illustrate how characters react, but it must be realistic. Study the unfairly maligned soaps on telly for consummate script writing. Possibly the most jarring sign of an amateur author is wooden, pompous or over-written dialogue.
Dialogue and narrative combine to drive us inexorably towards their conflict and how they will resolve it. Conflict indicates a moment where a dilemma is faced, a decision or change is required or thrust upon us, like the splitting of two great rivers. A character can tackle it, however chaotically, or they can avoid it. Either way there should be a resolution, even if it is tragic, otherwise we won’t have a story.
The stories in ‘Stabbing the Rain‘, my Amazon collection, commit to fiction moments from real life: mysterious encounters in Venice, an extraordinary Christmas in Alexandria, unexpected pregnancies, lost love, diagnosis with serious conditions, all treated with a somewhat black, compelling humour. You can find them here, and I hope you enjoy them.