Author Amanda Lohrey shares her tips for writing a great short story:
It’s difficult to generalize about what makes for a good short story. I once sat on a panel of three judges for a short story competition that attracted over 400 entries. We whittled that number down to a short-list of twelve and all twelve stories were first-rate – and all were different. Here, however, are a few broad-stroke guidelines:
1. A story should lock into one of your obsessions or you won’t bother to finish it.
2. It shouldn’t be in any way predictable, including to you while you’re writing it. It’s good not to be sure where you’re going.
3. After a first, second or third draft, leave it to cook in the oven of your unconscious for at least a month, preferably 3-6 months (longer even).
4. If a story isn’t working try changing the voice from third person to first – or vice versa – or the point-of-view from one character to another.
5. Poets sometimes assert that poetry differs from prose because in a poem every word counts. They’re wrong. In a story every word counts as well. Even a simple thing like a sentence that has too many occurrences of ‘a’ or ‘the’ in it can wreck the rhythm of a paragraph. Be ruthless in purging cliché and lazy phrasing from your drafts (unless deliberately planted in the idiomatic speech of a character). Purging cliché helps to avoid flatness of tone. Flatness of tone is death to a story.
6. The ending of a story should be both surprising and yet feel inevitable. This is the paradox of what readers think of as a good ending. If the right ending doesn’t come to you then the story needs more cooking (see 3).
7. Be like a film director – work on several story projects at once. You never know which one(s) are going to turn out well.
8. A story is a message in a bottle and not everyone will get the message. Some of my favorite stories by other writers have been rejected by famous editors. If someone doesn’t like your story, don’t fret. Write another story.
9. Hold your nerve. Don’t censor at source and take at least one major risk of self-exposure in writing the story. Something has to be at stake, including that you might make a fool of yourself. If that’s not happening then the story probably isn’t worth writing.
10. Don’t worry about what your mother will think. She’ll surprise you.
Reading Madame Bovary is available now in all good bookstores.