5-day Short Story Challenge: Introduction
From Tania Hershman
Before beginning to write a short story, you may ask yourself what exactly is a short story? I prefer to come at it from another direction: what might a short story be? I firmly believe there are no rules, no “shoulds”. Short stories come in all shapes and sizes, from the traditional and realist to the weirder and more surreal; they may look more like a list, diary entry or a lab report than a page of prose. Short stories can be ten words long or ten thousand. They might be about enormous events or tiny ones, loud and filled with a huge cast, or quiet and featuring only one or two people (or even animals, furniture or aliens – there’s no requirement to stick to the human).
This may sound like anything goes, which isn’t always helpful, but I do have plenty of thoughts on what makes a good short story, developed over years of reading hundreds of them as well as writing them. As opposed to a poem, which may be a description of a moment or object, a short story is something happening to someone.
We need a main character (or characters) to care about and an event, something that makes this a day that everything changes. A story in which everything happens as it usually does will make a reader wonder why you’re bothering to tell us about it. When I say “A day that everything changes”, it doesn’t have to be something huge, like an earthquake, serious illness or a murder. It might be the day the postwoman doesn’t say hello in the way she normally says, the day an employee’s key card refuses to let them into the office, or the day someone from another planet finds a telescope that can see other worlds. Tiny ripples can have huge consequences. What will then create tension is the question of what our main character does in response to that event and how it changes them.
Humans are addicted to stories in every form – from books to TV and film. I believe stories are not just for entertainment but are our way of gathering data. We can learn both about situations we have never been in (so we can get examples of how we might choose to behave) and to see how others deal with scenarios we have also experienced. If we don’t see how a character reacts to whatever has happened, we won’t get the data we’re after.
Let’s forget about the reader for now and get back to writing. There are many ways to write – as many as there are writers, perhaps more. I generally write my way into a story: voice is what starts it for me, when I can hear my character, then they start to feel real to me, and I follow them to see what happens. I’m my first reader; I’m telling myself the story. Once I’ve gotten to the end of the first draft, when I know what the story roughly is, then I can go back and see what I can let go of. I’ll know what I needed to know to write it but can be removed to allow a reader to fill in the gaps for themselves. One of the joys of short stories are the gaps which let a reader involve themselves.
Here are a few of my favourite short stories of different lengths and styles; nothing is a better writing teacher than reading!
Biologists Study Grace by Adam Peterson
Crazy Glue by Etgar Keret
Mother by Grace Paley
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