Saturday, December 4, 2010

How to write the best short story

Photo showing Makawana, the setting of Maiba.
The best short story you read, once in your lifetime, is not the one written by Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Rather, it is the one you yourself have written without telling your potential reader what that story might be about.

In the beginning, this is how your short story begins to take shape. An idea hits you. You feel excited about it. You become restless. And when you finally pick up the pen to start writing that idea down you notice you are trembling. So you drop the pen and stare into space for a long time. And still you have not written a word.

When you feel completely overwhelmed by such an emotion (for creative writing is indeed an act of expressing emotions) you can be sure that you are actually in the process of writing the best there is in short fiction – even though, again, you have not yet written a word down.

Your best shot at the short story, therefore, and as Raymond Carver would have it, is the result of watching fish roe swim in the milt of the human brain, before it gets written down. And just what does that mean? It means you spend the initial stages of that act of writing in just thinking: thinking, thinking and thinking. This will take days, weeks – even months. But when the actual writing begins – there you go. You need only transfer all that imaginative brilliance from the mind onto paper.

Those several days, even weeks and months of pondering, wondering, and wandering, without writing anything down on paper, is crucial in the process of creating your short story. In your mind, this is what is happening: you are visualizing your subject matter; setting the mood of the subject matter; and placing that subject matter in its proper place of what is considered as “subjectivity”, of which more later. This is important: you must never let your subject matter stray from where you want it to be. You are the author: you must be in full control of your subject matter.

What follows thenceforth is having all that translated and transmitted into the mind of your reader.

Do you want your reader to laugh, to cry or get angry and come after you? The choice is yours. But even that choice has to be controlled.

After having placed your subject matter where you want it to be you can then start worrying about the shape of the short story itself. Here, you are looking at the technicalities of story-telling.

The first thing you must be mindful of is time and space. Your story should run for 800 words or within your sponsor’s budget. In those 800 words you must be selective with the following: a brief description of scenery; the number of characters involved; choice of words in scenes, character description and dialogue; and the significance of “beacons” as markers in narrative. By “beacons” as markers in narrative, we mean simply that the first sentence of your story must be as catchy and memorable as your last, and these become key proponents or pointers. Without these pointers it is quite likely your story will turn out bland.

Finally, and as far as technicalities go, your story must carry with it an important moral lesson. What great moral lesson do you feel you have to teach the world – without, mind you, meaning to.

All that said, we get back to this funny word, subjectivity. Being subjective in story-telling means that although the story you write is based on your own thoughts and opinions, including your own personal experiences, you do not pass judgment on it. Yes, sir, this is one trapping that many writers, even the best of them, fall into. That means, precisely, refraining from overtly didactic and explanatory art. You quit blubbering about how tragic your story is, how many have ended up in hospital and all that. Let your reader do the judging. From your reader’s point of view you can then be able to tell whether your story is good or bad, resourceful or wanting. Your best judge is not the one who says, “This is good,” but the one who says, “You almost got it right this time.”

That brings us to the point of greatness in creative literature: when is your story good or bad? For lessons on this, refer to our other article, “Sensing greatness in creativity.” 
Tubuga Bay, as in the novel Maiba.