What makes for a great short story? Author Phil Sloman shares his thoughts with Kendall Reviews.

Phil Sloman is a writer of dark fiction. He was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Society Best Newcomer award in 2017.

Phil likes to look at the darker side of life and sometimes writes down what he sees. His short stories can be found throughout various anthologies and in his debut collection Broken On The Inside.

In the humdrum of everyday life, Phil lives with an understanding wife and a trio of vagrant cats who tolerate their human slaves. There are no bodies buried beneath the patio as far as he is aware.

Broken On The Inside is published by Black Shuck Books and contains four previously anthologised tales: “Discomfort Food,” “The Man Who Fed the Foxes,” “There Was an Old Man, Virtually Famous,” along with the previously unpublished title story.

Phil shares with Kendall Reviews what he thinks makes for a great short story…

Writing short stories

I love short stories. There’s a beautiful skill to them when done well. And we’re brought up on them in all those wonderful fairy tales we were told as children. For many of us this carries on into adulthood as the stories become more nuanced and the U-rating gravitates on through the PG, 12, 15 and 18 brackets. And it is in horror and weird fiction, I feel, where perhaps we see the finest examples of the short format. The ability of the writer to draw you in, set up the piece and then play on your emotions, your fears, your desires in somewhere under ten thousand odd words. Now that’s a talent.

For myself, I’ve been fortunate to be a reader, a writer and also a judge of short stories having been on the BFS short story panel a couple of years back. The below is my take on the nature of the short story and a bit about the craft. Take what you will from it and discard the rest. But do go and pick up an anthology or collection and dive into some of the fantastic stories which are out there. Perhaps even ask our kind host, Gavin Kendall, for his own recommendations. And when you’ve read those stories for pleasure, go back and read them for technique.

So what makes for a great short story? For me, it’s that emotion experienced by the reader as mentioned above. A feeling of joy or anger or horror at what happens to the characters on our brief journey with them. That realisation when reading that you’ve been holding your breath for the last few paragraphs. I once read a story by Stephen Volk called Newspaper Heart. It had me screaming at the pages as my heart broke in the final act. A masterclass in writing. Or look to The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe which is perhaps the tensest tale I have ever read as the blade descends to the prone form of our protagonist. It’s a classic tale for good reason.

But isn’t the same true of the longer format, Phil? Emotion has to be inherent in writing. And I agree wholeheartedly so let’s dig a little deeper. I think there are 101 approaches to how you write the content of your short story, how you approach style, voice, description and so on but the one common theme is that old adage ‘arrive late, leave early’. As a writer of short stories you have a limited amount of words to play with so use them wisely. Here’s a trick I’d advise, one alluded to above. Go and grab an anthology or collection from your shelf, one that you love, and choose a short story. Any story. Now read the opening section. Just the first couple of hundred words or so. Perhaps a page or two. Then go and analyse what the writer did.

I grabbed an anthology from my shelves at random and chose Eastmouth by Alison Moore to highlight this point (great story, go find it!). In the first paragraph, less than 100 words, Alison introduces our protagonist, her location and her sense of unease at being there.

Sonia stands on the slabs of the promenade, looking out across the pebbly beach. It is like so many of the seaside resorts from her childhood. She remembers one whose tarred pebbles left their sticky blackness on her bare feet and legs and the seat of her swimsuit. She had to be scrubbed red raw in the bath at her B&B. Her hands are wrapped around the railings, whose old paint is flaking off. When she let’s go her palms will smell of rust.”

So much packed into so few words. Less than 100 I said. 84 to be exact. All that in 84 words.

In the next 100 words we’re given enough backstory to paint a picture of her current relationship, why she’s at Eastmouth (not that we know the town’s name yet) and 100 words later we’re hooked with an uneasy sense of dread but nothing has happened. Those opening 300 odd words tell us about Sonia and Peter going to visit Peter’s family at a seaside town. There is no mention of the journey to get there, no detailed description of either characters’ appearance or their relationship, no long conversation to set the scene. Short, deceptively simple text with enough flesh to engage the reader and draw them into the story combined with that delightful sense of intrigue. The whole story runs to about seven pages yet packs an emotional punch which many struggle to do over 300 pages.

Okay, so that’s the opening sorted. What next? When I write I feel there is a rhythm to the short story. I sometimes think of it as the telling of a good joke with the set-up, the meat of the story and then the final inevitable reveal or punchline. For me, as a writer, I have to know where I am going. I have to know what that final punchline is going to be. The final outcome. Or at least the general sense of what it will be. And that is what I aim for but in doing so the reader has to feel there is a logic to how I got there. My three year old will tell me jokes along the lines of ‘What’s yellow and scary? A parrot!” Obviously I laugh, he’s my son, but somewhere en route he has missed out that crucial middle section and just rushed for the joy of his amazing punchline. I’ll forgive him though. As I said, he’s three. The principle here is the natural flow of the story to take you to the end. Don’t rush at it. Let the story build. Let the rhythm play through so when you get to your punchline the reader isn’t confused as to why a parrot flew in from out of nowhere to save the day. So let’s look at that middle section.

Build your layers. Bring out more about your characters. Give them their own voices, their own traits. Make us give a damn about them! I cannot say that enough. Yes, you’ve limited words but make sure we care what happens to your wonderful creations! Foreshadow the final outcome or bait and switch the reader so they gasp at your clever deceit come the end. What do you need to set up now so that final act sings? Do your characters have to be in jeopardy? Are you leading up to an emotionally devastating finale? Have you ratcheted up the tension quite how you would like it? Ask yourself these questions and more. This is the section where you have your reader caught on a hook if done well. If you get this section wrong then it is unlikely you can salvage it come the end.

And then on to the finale. The point where you deliver your closing, bow and then take the applause. Sometimes the temptation here is to explain everything, to pull every single thread into a neat ball. Sure, you can do that but some of the best stories leave a wonderful ambiguity, a delightful openness of interpretation for the reader. I think these are the best ones. As with the opening, let the reader fill in the blanks. Back to that ‘arrive late, leave early’ adage. If someone has been killed I don’t need to know if the killer goes to jail, the emotional fallout, any revenge – save that for another day. Here I simply want that dramatic punch which leaves me with my mouth agape.

You’ve finished. Good work. Except you know that you haven’t. Now is the time to go back and re-write your story again and again and again. Bum notes stand out far more in a short story as there is less foliage for them to hide in. Pare down the words. Tighten, tighten, tighten. Or even expand. Is something missing, something crucial which adds to the piece? Read the piece out loud. Repeatedly. You want to have this polished to within an inch of its life before you send it on to your editor who will undoubtedly work with you to polish it some more. Just because your story is 5,000 words instead of 50,000 doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend a similarly proportionate amount of time on the editing.

If you want to practice getting your story tighter then I would recommend playing around with some flash fiction. Years ago I used to write in a weekly competition, played for fun rather than financial gain, run by the excellent Lily Childs. Each week Lily gave us three words to play with and 100 words to use them in. The only rule was that you had to use all three words in a story of 100 words or less. Go and give it a try. Pick three words, set that word limit and see what you can do. Then do it in 50 words. It sounds simple but it’s an art to get it right.

So there you go. Those are my thoughts. And they are simply that. My thoughts. They’re not set in stone rules. Hopefully they are useful as a guide. Others will have different approaches which are equally valid or more so. What I would suggest to take away, if you take anything, is the advice about reading and dissecting. You’ll learn more doing that than reading a hundred different articles. And do so across the decades. Look to the modern tales, to the pulp anthologies and to the classics. They all have so much to offer.

Finally, for finer experts on the short story, look to the anthologies edited by the likes of Herbert van Thal, Stephen Jones, Ellen Datlow, Johnny Mains and Mark Morris to name a few. They have collected together some of the finest horror short stories over the years and you won’t go far wrong with them.

Phil can be found lurking here: http://insearchofperdition.blogspot.co.uk/ 

You can follow Phil on Twitter @phil_sloman

Phil Sloman’s BROKEN ON THE INSIDE presents a quintet of macabre mentality in:

  • Broken on the Inside
  • Discomfort Food
  • The Man Who Fed the Foxes
  • There Was an Old Man
  • Virtually Famous

You can buy Broken On The Inside from Amazon UK & Amazon US

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