I am a short story writer. I always have been, and probably always will be, regardless of my position in the writing world. Writers know it is good practice to read extensively in their chosen medium. If you write graphic novels, read a copious amount of graphic novels, poetry, read poetry collections. Read, write, and hone your skills. This means I have read hundreds of short stories by dozens of authors over the years. I have a bookshelf in my bedroom dedicated to short story collections as if their inner workings will seep into my brain during sleep.
One thing stands out in the stories that stick with me. They answer the following questions within the first few lines or paragraph, and certainly before the end of the first page:
I did it at the start of this blog entry and you probably didn’t realise.
- Who? – Me (I am)
- What? – a short story writer
- When? – always have been, and probably always will be
- Where? – regardless of my position in the writing world.
To illustrate this point, I’ve pulled a few books off my sacred short story book shelf and chosen some examples at random. Let’s have a look at six below from various authors. I’ve listed the full sources in a Bibliography at the end of this post.
Any other June, we would be in Hengwrt by now.from ‘The Fox on the Line’, Emma Donoghue
Who? – the narrator and other people
What? – they would be in a certain place
When? – by now
Where? – Hengwrt
Even though her eyes were still closed, Martha Briggs knew that the sun was shining. The warmth was creeping slowly, gloriously across the blankets, and any minute now it would reach her face.from ‘Last Day of Spring‘, Celia Fremlin
Who? – Martha Briggs
What? – waking up
When? – probably the morning
Where? – she is most likely in bed
I have never spent Christmas alone before.from ‘Christmas Meeting’, Rosemary Timperley
It gives me an uncanny feeling, sitting alone in my ‘furnished room’, with my head full of ghosts, and the room full of voices of the past.
Who? – the narrator
What? – sitting alone reminiscing
When? – at Christmas
Where? – in their furnished room
‘Oh, there is one, of course, but you’ll never know it.’from ‘Afterward‘, Edith Wharton
The assertion, laughingly flung out six months earlier in a bright June garden, came back to Mary Boyne with a new perception of its significance as she stood, in the December dusk, waiting for the lamps to be brought into the library.
Who? – Mary Boyne
What? – remembering what someone said as she stood in the dusk waiting for lamps
When? – December
Where? – the library
I met Myra at the Arts Club. It was lunchtime on the sort of summer day which makes you want to eat outside, off a table with a luminous white cloth.from ‘Dog People’, M John Harrison
Who? – the narrator and Myra
What? – meeting for lunch
When? – on a summer’s day
Where? – at the Arts Club
So there’s Scallie and me wearing Starsky-and-Hutch wigs, complete with sideburns, at five o’clock in the morning by the side of the canal in Amsterdam.from ‘The Thing About Cassandra’, Neil Gaiman
Who? The narrator and Scallie
What? – wearing Starsky-and-Hutch wigs
When? – 5am
Where? – by a canal in Amsterdam
I could keep going, but I think you get the point. Of course there are many stories that do not follow this pattern, it’s not a hard and fast rule; but it does set up a short story quickly, and grabs the reader’s attention. So go on, choose a few short story collections and have a look and start a discussion in the comments below.
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Donoghue, E., ‘The Fox on the Line’, in Donoghue, E., The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Virago Press, London, 2002, pp.29-40.
Gaiman, N.,‘The Thing About Cassandra’, in Gaiman, N., Trigger Warning Short Fictions and Disturbances, Headline Publishing Group, London, 2015, pp.14-32.
Harrison, MJ., ‘Dog People’, in Royle, N (ed.) Best British Short Stories 2018, Salt Publishing, Cromer, 2018, pp. 80-93..
Timperley, R., ‘Christmas Meeting’, in Dahl, R (ed.) Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, Penguin Books, London, 2012, pp. 91-94.
Wharton, E., ‘Afterward’, in Dahl, R (ed.) Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, Penguin Books, London, 2012, pp. 229-272.