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Writing Short Stories

I recently judged the Bristol Short Story Prize for the second year running. This year there were 2,420 entries from all over the world. My fellow judges – agent, Rowan Lawton, radio producer, Sara Davies and writer, Nikesh Shukla – and I read forty stories and chose the twenty that will feature in the next anthology as well as the winner, second and third place.

And today the short list of those twenty stories we chose has been announced!

Since this is my second time judging, I thought I’d share with you my ten tips on writing short stories.

  1. Short stories are short! Every word counts – keep cutting. Don’t say anything extraneous.
  2. Beautiful prose might make me weep with joy or jealousy – but they’re called stories for a reason – you need one. See 3.
  3. Just because they’re short doesn’t mean you can dispense with the central tenants of fiction: you still need a plot. In the best short stories, you can still have an inciting incident that kicks off the plot, three acts, a climax, crisis and a resolution.
  4. You need a good beginning. I want to want to read past the first paragraph.
  5. The biggest problem most short stories I’ve read have is the ending. Or lack of it. You need a proper ending – don’t let your work peter out. Or your middle go saggy.
  6. Fantastic characters can make or break a story. You don’t need reams of description or oodles of flashbacks – less is more – we can flesh out the characters in our imagination, but your story still needs to be peopled with well defined persons. Speaking cracking dialogue.
  7. You might think it sounds clever and the reader can work it out for him or herself – but if what you’re trying to say or show is too tangential or insubstantial or obscure, they won’t get it.
  8. Show don’t tell. But see 7.
  9. So many short stories are about coming of age, adolescence, death and social media. Can you write about something else? Please? Just kidding – but if you do follow a well worn path, make it truly your own. See 10.
  10. Don’t be obvious, be original.

And here are five bonus tips from my fabulous fellow judges:

11. Everyone: Think really hard about the ending. It can be open if we can imagine what it might be, but you still need to have control over the ending.

12. Sara: If you write in the voice of a young person, you’ve really got to hit the nail on the head.

13. Sara: Your characters need real depth. Many short stories this year were let down by characters who were all surface. It’s not just about doing, it’s about being. You need to drill down, give your characters substance.

14. Rowan: Don’t open with your protagonist waking up in the morning. (Sara: Unless he wakes up as a cockroach)

15. Nikesh: Short stories are about precision, confidence and control, which you get by editing. Don’t submit anything ten minutes after finishing.

For expert advice, though, my friend, Tania Hershman has co-edited a book with Courttia Newland called Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ and Artists’ Companion, published by Bloomsbury.

What are your top tips for writing short stories? Who is your favourite short story writer?

7 thoughts on “Writing Short Stories”

  1. Pingback: The Bristol Short Story Prize « Sanjida O'Connell

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