What happened? And what happened next? These two questions, according to writer Tessa Hadley in a recent article, drive all of her short stories.
I found them helpful as a way of thinking about this tricky form, and with lots of short story competitions coming up, including The Big Issue’s annual Fiction Edition, I’ve created a short story workshop based on this idea. I still have so much to learn about short stories, so this is a beginner’s workshop. But sometimes it’s good to go back to basics. I hope it works for some of you out there.
Start with a setting. It can be where you are right now, or somewhere you remember and want to revisit in your mind. Ideally you want a few shadows to peer into and mysterious rooms to discover. Maybe a half-remembered holiday house, or a friend’s house from primary school, or your grandmother’s house, or that weird place you visited once to look at a sofa on Gumtree? Or it could be somewhere different: a train journey. A shabby hotel by the sea. What you want, though, is a place with some emotional charge, some energy.
Picture it in your mind, then write about it for a page or so.
Now you need a character. What are they doing there? Who are they with? What are they thinking about? What can they see, smell, hear?
If you look back over some great short stories, they often begin with someone in a strange physical or emotional place—not another planet, but their normal life, slightly altered: a cleaner in someone’s home, a family going on a drive and taking a wrong turn, a child left alone with the hired help or bumping into someone on a canal path.
Think of how you could make the character unsettled, or what could be happening that makes this moment different.
And what happened next?
So you’ve set up your opening situation. Now bring in someone else. An authority figure. A houseguest. Someone returning after being away for a long time. A baby. A crab, even. I just read a short ghost story by Susan Hill that opens with the main character, a staid English bookseller, feeling a child’s hand slip into his.
Who is this new person? What are they going to bring? Are they safe, or dangerous? Are they going to be a force for good, or evil? What do they want?
It’s also more surprising if you let characters materialise rather than writing about people you know in real life. Think of characters in your favourite books—you created them with your imagination and someone else’s words. Now you’re just doing the same thing with your own words. They will come to life, even blurrily. And once they do, they’ll let you know what they’re up to.
At this point, once you’ve got people and place up and running, try adding some manufactured drama. An argument, a confrontation, an accident, a transgression. Just throw something at your characters and see what they do (yes, that sounds harsh, but readers demand drama and mystery; we are competing with Tiger Kings, remember?)
If you can’t think of anything, go find it. Pre-internet, writers used to hang out in courtrooms and hunt through newspapers to find story ideas— now you’ve got the whole internet to explore—news stories, Reddit threads, Twitter. The only problem here is extracting yourself and getting back to your notebook.
Write to a point where you think you’ve come to a natural end. For a short story, this is around 3000 words, give or take. Now you’ve got something you can play around with, but first let it sit for a while.
Go for a walk, read something else. Sleep on it. You’ll find that if you’ve brought it to life you’ll still be thinking about it—scribble down any ideas you have.
Editing AKA the creative bit
Go through your draft and tidy it up, reading it aloud to catch any clunky phrasing and noting any glaring omissions or areas that feel undeveloped.
Does it feel incomplete or too tidy? What could you add, or take away? What about those poetic sentences you love that don’t add anything? Cut out a line here, change a verb there. What happens if you swap genders or give your character a new job, or age, or background? Or change the place or the decade? Does the story feel more vivid to you now, and how can you convey that to readers, with, for example, physical details? Could it be that what happened next is the past, and what happened is the present?
Print it out and cut it up into scenes, then try rearranging the pieces to see what happens. Or if you’re dealing with two timelines, colour each one in a different pen and rearrange them in an order that builds tension, hides things and then reveals them. Put it all back together again, and give it another read-through.
Now it’s ready to show someone else—a friend, your writing group, a manuscript assessor. Take in their feedback and ideas that you find helpful.
Finally, when it feels sturdy—it will never feel finished—send it out and see what happens. Repeat.
One final thing: with a short story what happened next doesn’t have to be huge. It can be just the slightest shift in your main character’s view of the world—but by focusing on that question, you may just end up with a short story first draft. Or you’ll have spent an hour or so losing yourself in an imaginary world, which is the best thing of all.
Zoe Deleuil is a writer from Perth, currently living in Berlin. In 2018 she was shortlisted for our short story competition and published in the anthology, Pigface and Other Stories. Her debut novel, The Night Village, will be published by Fremantle Press in 2021.