‘A cloud that just lands’

A short story is a slice of life, so it needs a narrow geographical location and a small number of characters.  It takes work to produce the 500 to 6,000 words that ‘explore a mood, a pregnant silence, a seemingly mundane scenario that’s somehow charged with significance’ – novelist and broadcaster Marcel Theroux’s description of the short story.

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Paying attention to the beginning pays dividends as the story develops. Spending time understanding the form in which you are writing, rather than rushing to get words on the page, was the first piece of advice OCA creative writing tutor Barbara Henderson gave to the writers round the table at her master class at this year’s Off the Shelf festival in Sheffield. It’s just as valid for writers sitting at their desk at home.

What short story writers are advised to do next will go against the grain for some: start in the middle, not at the beginning. How does a writer know where the middle is? By identifying the moment just before a turning point. Barbara suggests six types of beginning. Here are examples of each of them.

The ‘scene setter’: ‘Nothing could be more unseasonal than this – the bleachy stench of chlorine, Victorian tiled walls the colour of old ivory – and yet, thought Marion, as she barrelled up the fast lane with flexible body and open chest, perhaps not.’ (‘The Year’s Midnight’, from ‘Constitutional’, by Helen Simpson, 2005, London: Vintage Books)

Conflict: ‘It happened very fast, without warning. One day, everybody started dying.’ (‘Every Third Thought’, from ‘Constitutional’ by Helen Simpson, 2005, London: Vintage Books)

The tease or puzzle: ‘A beginning, an end: there seems to be neither. The whole thing is like a cloud that just lands and everywhere inside it is full of rain.’ (‘People Like That are the Only People Here’ from ‘Birds of America’ by Lorrie Moore, 1998, USA and London: Faber and Faber)

The narrator explains: ‘In her last picture, the camera had lingered at the hip, the naked hip, and even though it wasn’t her hip, she acquired a reputation for being willing. (‘People Like That are the Only People Here’ from ‘Birds of America’ by Lorrie Moore, 1998, USA and London: Faber and Faber)

The direct quotation: ‘”I’m very worried,” she said. Can you come over right away, Derek?’” (‘The Tree’, ‘Constitutional’ by Helen Simpson, 2005, London: Vintage Books)

The first person narrator speaks: ‘Day One. See every time I goes on a diet, I remember all they diets that have gone afore: like auld illnesses, they come wey memories o’ intense sadness.’ (‘Mini Me’, from ‘Reality, Reality’, Jackie Kay, 2012, London: Picador)

Six different approaches, with an important characteristic in common: the reader wants to know more.  Good beginnings prompt questions: who is Marion in Helen Simpson’s ‘The Year’s Midnight’? Where is she, to be smelling chlorine?  Who is Lorrie Moore’s photographer’s subject? Why a naked rather than a clothed hip? Whose hip is it?

Read the beginnings you write for your own short stories. If you have questions, so will your readers. They will read on, eager for answers.  If you have no questions, you know you need to write more.

Image of mural at The Workstation, where the master class took place, courtesy of Geo Law, a freelance illustrator from Sheffield. Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival runs until 1 November.

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