So a late follow on from Characterisation, part of my little guide to writing stories, entitled, what I’ve learnt about writing stories this summer.
So anyone who has read anything I’ve written knows, writing short stories is not like writing novels but you get to clock off early! Short stories can leave out a lot of what a reader expects from a novel. In its most exaggerated you introduce novel characters and setting like this:
“Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or –five her husband a few years older; their little girl Susan, would have been about six. They must have made a very handsome family, but my memory of them is vague. I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings.” The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters
Waters wants you to spend 499 pages in her settings so you need to picture it.
Short stories do not have to be so consistent. Rather than (like novels) count 1-2-3-4-5 so that they don’t lose you, they count 1-5-9 and let you work out the gaps.
“The summer Jessie Spencer turned five, she played Capture the Flag every day with the big boys, the almost-six-year-olds who’d gone to kindergarten a year late.”
A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, Amy Bloom
Both these passages come from the first page of books I happen to have next to my bed, literally the first two I picked up. For me it shows clearly the difference. While the novel gives you a carefully arranged world the short story throws sensory references to you. Of course not all novels or stories do this, but the difference is marked.
So openings, I feel should be examples of this difference in style, but you tell me. Three of the following are novel openings and three stories.
- It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
- My first and only visit to a therapist cost me my red coral bracelet and my lover
- Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
- You wouldn’t have known me a year ago.
- The first great act of love I ever witnessed was Split Lip bathing his handicapped daughter.
- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
To me there’s a difference, the short stories tend to start with a point of view (POV) very close to the protagonist, whilst the novels have time and space to start with a wide point of view. Alos the novels want to tackle broader, and grander subjects, they have more ambition. Considering this you should be able to work out the three novels, you can check at the end of the post.
Openings need to grab, of course, they need to locate too. I hate stories which start with dialogue, sometimes it is done properly, but mostly the story is ruined. You’re like what? Who? It’s better to begin with the main character – John is a young man with a problem. It’s easy really – pick a character, pick a conflict and scratch the tip of the conflict to start the reader off.
My worst beginnings? Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Kim by Rudyard Kipling. I’ve just read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things for a book club and although the opening – ‘May in Ayemenem is a hot brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen.’ Sort of does locate you and let you get a feel for the place, it doesn’t really grab your attention. And some of the description is a bit heavy, I’d rather just jump in to human events. As it happens this book gets bogged down with needless description for the next 150 pages.
So my checklist:
- Introduce your character early, don’t get lost in description or a wide POV
- Start with a hook, a great first line
- If you’re starting with dialogue, make sure you know why, and do it well
- If you’re writing a novel you have more space, but a short story must get to the point
- If you happen to be Arundhati Roy, slap yourself for such a flowery, go-nowhere book.
And the opening lines are thus:
- Jane Austin pride and prejudice (slap yourself if you didn’t know this) N
- Judith Hermann, the Red Coral Bracelet SS
- G Garcia Marquez, 100 years of solitude N
- Amy Bloom, the Story SS
- George Saunders, Isabelle SS
- Dickens Tale of Two Cities N