Wednesday, 19 October 2011

How not to be a short story writer

I rarely write short fiction. Short story writing, which requires set up, development and resolution in two thousand words or fewer, is a skill that I don't have. The novel, with a plot that takes time to work out, and a large cast of characters, is my natural medium.

However, a while ago I was inspired to write Bess, her story, linked to under 'Pages' above. It's not a story, more a slice of life or character piece. It's not at all my usual style, and I don't think it would work in a longer piece, but it demanded to be written that way.

(The next paragraph discusses the piece, so you might want to read it before reading further here.)

And even in this short (just over two thousand words) piece I have nine named characters, two who are individually described but not named, and others who are mentioned but not individually described.

What is totally lacking, however,  is a plot. The characters don't drive the action. They don't make any decisions that change the course of events. They only observe and react.


  1. What is totally lacking, however, is a plot. The characters don't drive the action. They don't make any decisions that change the course of events. They only observe and react.

    You say that like it’s a bad thing *g*

    Seriously, though, isn’t it a rather male attitude to assume that the only good story is one with lots of running around (aka “plot”)? I loved this, as I always enjoy stories that show people thinking about their world and their life. Your characters do act; John goes to Dover to market etc, Bess carries out her domestic duties, manages the staff, brings up her son. You show them very clearly driving their own action, and there’s nothing wrong with that imo. Most of us never do make any decisions that change anything very much, and of the ones that do, the world might be a better place without quite a lot of them.

    The embarrassing thing is, what with Drake and his bowls on Plymouth Hoe, until I read this I always assumed the fight against the Armada took place down-Channel. I had no idea it could be seen from Dover. I’ve just read it up and it all makes sense - I can only assume that whatever I learned about it in school was also a little light on plot!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I think it works well, as you say, as people thinking about their world. It was a sudden lunchtime inspiration a few years ago, so I don't know if I'll ever
    write anything else like it. I think it's the only thing I've ever written in first person!

    But nothing has changed for Bess as a result of what she's just lived through.

    Plot doesnt have to be about lots of running around. But I think it should lead to some kind of change in the main character and how she approaches her life.

    For example, Bess could have an overbearing live-in mother in law. She could realise that if she's prepared to fight off the Spaniards with a carving knife, she can stand up to her mother in law. Or she could decide that in comparison to the prospect of a Spanish invasion, the old lady's nagging really doesn't matter and she can rise above it.

    That would be a plot, albeit a very slight one.

    I notice that I did hint at a potentially much greater conflict, with Bess not liking John's
    hardline religious views. But John won't change his opinions, and Bess knows it, so one
    couldn't go very far with it as a plot.

    My favourite book on the Armada, the one I used for background here, is 'The Defeat of the Spanish Armada', by Garrett Mattingly. It's been reprinted so often, in so many different formats, it's very easy to find second hand.