My own writing journey began with the short story form. I remember how in primary school (this was still in Sarajevo) we had to do these writing exercises where we would write as much as we could in forty-five minutes or so. The teacher hadn’t called it a short story, but the result almost always was. The next week he would give us our mark along with his edits. He didn’t do any rewriting, of course, the focus was on getting the grammar and the sentence structure right. We’d then spend time rewriting the story, making sure it was as perfect as an eleven year old could make it.

There were a lot of good lessons in that exercise: free-writing, editing, polishing your work, writing for a deadline, writing even when writing might be the last thing on your very young mind. It was from these early beginnings that I fell in love with short fiction.

What it’s all about

Before we can start writing a short story we have to know a few things, I think. We have to know why we’re writing it, and we have to know how and where to begin.

The why is important because it immediately gets our mind on the right track. The why can be anything from something that’s happened to us during the day, or something (an emotion, an experience, a thought, a dream, an idea) that we want to explore in our short story. This why, when we’re done, often becomes the theme of the story, or its message. But it doesn’t have to be that initially. Initially, curiosity is enough.

For me, the short story starts with a feeling, a thing that, more often than not, cannot be grasped. Rarely am I able to see the start, the sentences that will get me going. I don’t worry about the details too much, the important thing is that there is something there, that there is something in the room that ought to be talked about. A good start, a good beginning, is what allows us to go from A to B. It makes the inevitable possible.

A metaphor

Consider two trains barrelling toward one another at high speed. The crash is inevitable, that much we know. The crash is where our story will take us. And our story will end a few minutes after, as the cloud of dust is lifting, revealing the mayhem and the damage. The end is us trying to work out who has made it, and, more importantly, seeing how they’ve been changed by the experience.

The image of two trains highlights three things I look for in a story:

–          Urgency

I want the writer to take me to the end in the most efficient way possible.  I hate verbiage, especially in writing. It has been hammered into me that if a paragraph, a sentence even, doesn’t advance the plot or develop the character it must go. There is some provision for setting the scene, but you don’t get much. If I get bored, I’m out.

–          Impending danger

Think about the last action/thriller movie you saw that had a bomb as a device to generate conflict. I am almost certain there was a timer visible on that bomb. Apart from the fact that no real explosive would have a convenient timer (unless it showed the wrong time), I find it does the opposite of what the writers wanted. It kills tension. The conflict becomes constrained to those last few seconds when our hero has to make the choice between the red and black wire. And we know they’ll be fine.

Do away with the timer, I say. The bomb should go off any second now. Our characters should be living on shifting ground. Any second now things could irreversibly change. Conflict should not be constrained to character interactions. It should bleed right through the pages. It should be everywhere, like a thick fog descending into the world of our characters filling each living second in suffocating uncertainty.

–          Realism

Fiction is not about writing real life. Short stories, especially, are anything but real life. Short stories do not need to be accurate, but they need to be truthful. This is something they teach you in creative non-fiction: how to get to the truth of things (a higher truth, if you will, if such a things exists) even if the facts are partially or fully missing.

The point is you’ve got to get to the good stuff, the stuff that drives our lives. Emotion. Everything in a story should be set up in a way to squeeze the sponge that is life. That sticky thing that’s left, that’s feeling, that’s experience, that’s emotion. It doesn’t have to be anything strong or big, it doesn’t have to be life or death, but it needs to be concrete. The reader should be able to go, ‘Ah, yes! I recognise that. I can imagine. I can relate.’ Even if they’ve never lived it, if the writing is strong, they should be able to empathise, to connect. Because, no matter if you’re writing about aliens, a balloon swallowing a city or talking giraffes, fiction ought to stand firmly planted in our own humanity.