Wednesday, 4 February 2015

When is a story not a story?

Short story writing is a specific skill quite separate from novel writing. It is a skill that I do not have, so I've asked my friend Helen Spring to share her thoughts on what makes an effective short story. Helen is a novelist and a short story writer. Her work, including her latest publication, a collection of short stories, is available on Amazon. See what Helen has to say below, and if you agree or disagree with her thoughts, please leave a comment.


ANSWER: When it is almost any other kind of writing. There must have been more differing opinions written about short stories and their structure than almost any other kind of writing. I have my own opinion about short stories, and when I have voiced it, have received comments which ranged from ‘Utter rubbish!’ to ‘You are so right!’

I think we all have an idea of what a story is, and we always know if we have enjoyed it after reading it. So you may feel I am making a difficulty where there is none. But I can enjoy a piece of writing without agreeing that it is a short story. It may simply be a piece of very good writing describing something which happened – in that case I would call it an anecdote. If it was writing which described something in great detail I might call it an essay. So what does a piece of writing have to have which makes it (in my view) a story?

I believe a story worthy of the name has to have a structure which works through the writing so that the reader has a certain reaction at the end, and knows it is a story. Not necessarily ‘a beginning, a middle and an end,’ although that is a good structure, but something has to change during the narrative to make it into a story.

For example: ‘It was very cold, so I decided to buy some warm cloth and make myself a coat. It took me seven years to make but I eventually had a warm coat.’ – That is an anecdote.

But: ‘It was very cold, so I decided to buy some warm cloth and make myself a coat. It took me seven years to make but by then I had put on so much weight I couldn’t wear it.’ – That is a story.

P. D. James probably put it best when she argued: ‘A short story does not have to have a plot, but it does have to have a point.’ So many short stories these days (and many of them are published) seem to me to be just an interesting (or not) piece of writing with very little structure. 

Please don’t think I am advocating some sort of moral message, although earlier short stories often did have them, for example children’s stories (Cinderella, The Three Bears, or Aesop’s fables.) All these have survived so long because they made a point which the reader understood. These days you wouldn’t get far trying to moralise in a story, but the description of actions or thoughts and their consequences (often unforeseen) can make for an interesting and satisfying structure.

If one studies acknowledged masters of the short story, (I am thinking of Guy de Maupassant or the American writer O. Henry, for example) one finds there is always that pivotal point (and sometimes you have to search for it) which turns the process and makes a piece of writing become a story.

I’ll quote as an example the story of Cinderella, simply because it is one we all know. What is the pivotal point in that story which has ensured it lasts forever? If you think about it, it is the loss of Cinderella’s glass slipper as she runs from the ball as the clock chimes midnight. Think about it. If she hadn’t lost the slipper, she would have gone home, all her finery would have disappeared and it would be an anecdote. (‘I went to the ball after all and had a good night out.’) By losing the slipper, the Prince is given the opportunity to find the wearer, which makes possible the ‘happy ever after’.

Often when writing a story, I have found it didn’t quite work, and almost always it is because I have not found that pivotal point which will make the story move, to bring about the satisfying (or horrifying or whatever) ending. This pivotal point does not have to be in any particular place in the story, and it does not have to be an action or event, it can simply be a change in thought processes, but I do believe it has to be there.

Well I’m sure some people disagree with me, and if you do I’d love to hear why you think I’m wrong. When do you think a piece of writing deserves the title ‘STORY’ ?

Helen Spring

No comments:

Post a Comment