Monday Motivation: A brief introduction to the short story

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Beynon's blog

Maddingley Hall is a large manor house on the outskirts of Cambridge.  It was built by Sir John Hynde, a prominent judge in the reign of Henry VIII, and his son Francis in the mid-sixteenth century. The Hall is surrounded by hundreds of acres of parkland.

I found myself on a sunny Saturday in June parking on the crisp apron of gravel in front of the Hall for a day of debate and conversation about the short story. I was one of fifty or so people attending Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education’s Short Story Festival.

We gathered in a commodious room, once conceivably a ballroom or at least a grand reception room in which Sir John and all the other Hyndes – they held the property for over 200 years – made merry.

We made merry over thoughts about the short story.

I thought it might be useful, for those of you who harbour ambitions to follow in the footsteps of Katherine Mansfield and George Saunders, or Stephen King and O. Henry, to highlight a number of the insights offered over the course of the first session of the day.

Short stories are essentially different from other forms of fiction because they are so distilled, so concentrated. This central fact has all sorts of consequences.

You can, said Ailsa Cox, (the world’s only professor of the short story, she proudly announced) skip the boring bits of a novel without risk of ruining the whole – “but you can’t skip bits of a short story, because everything is important.”

She said that “short stories tend to leave you with more questions than you started with.” And Lucy Durneen, writer and associate at the Institute, added, “The short story is always trying to resist tying things up in a bow.”

Making things “plain” simply doesn’t seem to work in a short story. The reader must be forced to do much of the work herself, puzzling things out.

Precisely, said Sam Jordison, director of the Galley Beggar Press. “So much of a short story lies off the page.” The reader has to imagine the characters, the backstory, sometimes even the resolution.

But in the end, declared Jean McNeil, writer and academic at the University of East Anglia (and who spent a year as writer in residence in Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey), there are no rules. “As a writer, you’re a consciousness in the world” – and that is all you have to work with.

Often, this particular panel agreed, the first draft of a short story should have the last two or three paragraphs excised. The story benefits from a certain reticence, a certain recalcitrance on the part of the writer to over-explain. “The compulsion,” said McNeil, “is to tell, to expose everything.” But it must be resisted.

The short story (everyone conceded) is not the way to riches, and it’s a difficult foundation to build a career as a writer on. Very, very few writers have restricted themselves entirely to short stories – Mansfield is one, and Alice Monroe, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, another. But they are the exceptions.

But what the short story offers writers is, in Ailsa Cox’s words, “the opportunity to find their own voice, to learn the fundamentals of narrative composition and, most importantly, to produce a complete piece of work over a limited timescale.”*

And what it also offers, as increasing numbers of the All About Writing community are discovering, are dozens, nay, scores of competitions to enter.

Happy writing,

Richard

*I drew this from the introduction to her book Writing Short Stories: A Routledge Writer’s Guide.

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Comments
  • sandi
    Reply

    Richard, I think it’s Alice Munro rather than Alice Monroe (also a writer).

    Happy writing.

    Sandi

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