"To kill the cat, or not to kill the cat? That is the question" - no, not a rewriting of one of the most famous Shakespearean tragedies but, said workshop facilitator Jamie Edgecombe, a valid question when writing a short story.
To celebrate the inaugural National Writing Day, Literature Works joined forces with writer Jamie Edgecombe to host a short story workshop which explored the elements of the form and how to structure a short story for maximum impact on the reader. We hit Plymouth University’s Writing Cafe for an afternoon of writerly wisdom and ended with a group-created story (hence where the above question comes in – but more on that later).
We started by mapping the elements of short fiction we thought were important and came up with these:
Character – when writing a short story try not to over complicate with multiple characters – choose one to develop whom the reader can invest in until the end and use supporting characters as devices in the plot.
Plot – there has to be a structure to the story which drives the character(s) towards the ultimate goal of the story.
Setting – the setting must be authentic and developed, when choosing a setting it is important not to focus on typical images – research around the area and choose something unexpected.
Dialogue – dialogue can be an important way of divulging back story and of therefore driving the plot forward, spend some time listening to conversations and the language that people use to communicate day-to-day, try to use this in your writing.
Tension/ crisis – the story needs some form of crisis to provide the action of the story, this can be small or large scale and will ultimately drive the plot. One workshop participant said that the short story form ‘allowed for the development of a microcosmic tension which can have massive impact on the characters in a small space’.
Music – think about the language of your story and how this will contribute to the mood or feeling established.
Theme – what themes or issues are you going to explore in your writing? Will these be immediately apparent?
We moved on to an exercise looking at famous first lines from literature and determining what the crises of the stories would be. Jamie asked us to consider whether they were always immediately apparent, or slower to build how this dynamic changes in the short story and can have differing levels of impact on the reader.
Once we had established the elements of short fiction, it was time to see how they all worked together in a model suggested and used by noted novelist and short story writer Gerard Donovan:
Together we used a scenario suggested by one workshop participant and worked the story through. The crisis chosen was a driver running over their neighbour’s cat. Hence the opening question. Once the crisis had been decided upon, it was time to finesse the idea. Who was the driver? Male? Female?
We chose female. Did this make a difference? Jamie wanted to know. How would it influence the story, the reader? How could this small decision influence the course of the story’s goal achievement? What was the goal? We decided that our driver was late for an appointment, as it happened a job interview and had caused her to act uncharacteristically.
It was fascinating to map through the story in this way, noting how small decisions could impact on the characters but that those same decisions could cause entirely different reactions in the reader – would they feel sympathetic, angered, betrayed by the story and how did we end it?
In short – ‘to kill the cat, or not to kill the cat?’ – every story said Jamie, has to have drama to keep the characters and readers engaged in its progress and ultimately its ending, So was it essential to kill the cat in the accident, or was it more impactful if the cat was injured? What if there was a close bond between the cat and the neighbour’s child? How did that impact on our characters’ responses.
The possibilities were seemingly endless and we all wound up with a greater sense of the complexities and inherent beauty of the form.
The questions we explored were those which served to allow us to think about what we want to achieve with our writing and how, by putting pen to paper and choosing a direction for our characters be they a driver who is running late, a fantastical creature from a far off future or an homage to your teenage sister, every word we write has significance and can breath life into the stories we want to tell and so, we hope that our celebration of National Writing Day 2017 inspires you to tell your story and think about what you want your story to achieve. The possibilities are endless…
Literature Works would like to thank Jamie Edgecombe and all who attended the workshop. Look out for more like this from us soon.