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A Short Guide to Writing a Short Story - Part 3
By Yvonne Granger
Posted on: 22 March 2012
As you map out your route to and from the most interesting places, you might wonder whether those who have travelled the terrain before you asked themselves the same question. Speaking on behalf of your fellow travellers, Mr Rankin confesses: We have real fear of that blank first page, that elusive killer opening sentence or paragraph. We are hesitant and uncertain: Do I have anything new and useful to say? Will this turn out to be the book, the one that sums up all my feelings and answers the questions I have about the way our world turns? If you want the short answer, take it from Ernest Hemingway: All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know. If you want the specific answer, take it from Mr Guthrie: What I try to figure out first of all is the point of the scene. I have to know what Im trying to do in the scene, so I have to know what the point-of-view characters objective is and whats stopping them achieving that objective. Thats fundamental. Then I immerse myself as much as possible in the point-of-view characters head: What does he see? What does he hear? What does he smell? All the sensory stuff, not necessarily to write it down, but to know where hes coming from.
Knowing where your point-of-view character is coming from can take you one step closer to knowing where your story should be going. And where do you go from there? If you work like Doug Johnstone, you start working on character before plot to see what they can make happen and how theyll react Towards the end of the planning process I start doing several pages of character profiles. Finally I do a scene-by-scene script Thats only a couple of lines each, but Ill have stuff written in with arrows and other stuff scored out on that board. Then I start: page one. If you work like Helen FitzGerald, you start with a premise, and come back to prove it at the end. Whatever works for you, if you want to keep your story moving, you might want to follow Tony Blacks lead: I have a basic structure, but Im not setting up an obstacle course for my characters. Now that youre setting out to write a short story, you dont have to take your characters on any journey, and whether or not you do, its quite alright if, like Mr Rankin, you dont want to think about it like that. After all, the short story is the form to write in if, like Mr Johnstone, you love that kind of writing books that turn on one central incident.
How do you get that central incident to take shape in first your own and then your readers mind? Bringing six decades worth of experience to this central enigma, Mr McIlvanney says: Ideas have to be physicalised for me so that images may convey them through physical forms and comparisons. It is, then, no coincidence that this process is as individual to you as is your style, not if you work like Ms FitzGerald: My style is important to me. I almost sing a chapter. That sounds w****, doesnt it? But I can feel the rhythm of it. Likewise, Chris Brookmyre gets there by pulling back to reveal purely for the stylistic impact, to tell the tale, to surprise the reader, to give him a visceral entertainment. For me that always has to be the main thing. I dont want to have an ideological agenda that in any way dictates the structure. Now, if all this theory is getting in the way of your understanding before you even start getting your story under way, you might take comfort from Mr Black: If you start understanding it the magics gone.
If what you would rather take is control of your story, you might want to take Ms Welshs counsel: I write nine to five. Its rather boring like bankers hours. Youre not always inspired, but a lot of what youre doing is quite technical stuff you just have to chip, chip, chip, chip, chip, chip, and keep on going, and then there will be these breakthrough moments Youre not inspired every day, but youre often setting things up to be inspired by doing a lot of work on structure or by editing it again and again. More concerned with her work ethic than her word count, she continues: I think J.G. Ballard said if you dont write 1,000 words a day, its just not worth it. I dont write 1,000 words a day. I write 500 or so. Its quite a slow process. Theyre closely worked, but theres still a lot of s*** in there always, always. It just needs to be worked out.
When you think youve worked it all out, stop writing. Remember the honesty of your original intent. Then ask yourself whether and how well youve told your story. Why? According to Mr Rankin, the nice thing about putting it out of your head for a few weeks is that when you go back youre seeing it through a readers eyes more than through an authors eyes. You start to see the mistakes. When that happens, keep writing. Eventually, your story will let you share your readers joy of reading, and your stamina will let you share Mr McIlvanneys joy of writing: Its like hunting an animal and not knowing what it looks like. You dont know its markings or even the shape of it, but sometimes when you find it you go: Thats what I was hunting all that time.