Short story writing – by Alex Chaudhuri
May 1 sees the publication of a thrilling new collection of crime stories by ten of indie publisher Lume Books’ (formerly Endeavour Media) best crime writers. The anthology, Given in Evidence, features an original story written by CWA member, A.A. Chaudhuri, author of The Scribe and The Abduction, entitled ‘The Encounter’.
A kiss in the dark with a stranger, rather than a marriage
Fellow crime writer, Gary Donnelly, recently told me about a reputed author who once compared a short story to ‘a kiss in the dark with a stranger, rather than a marriage’. This struck me as a rather beautiful analogy but also an accurate one. Like the former, short stories are brief, but they can also have a powerful and profound effect on the reader precisely because of their brevity and tendency to be read in one sitting, as opposed to a novel that gets picked up and put down. A reader has no time to get to know the short story’s characters in any real depth, just as one cannot pretend to know a stranger’s personality, unlike that of a spouse. Likewise, there is also no time for the writer to build up a meaningful relationship with his or her characters or get frustrated with them. The trappings of a full-length novel are stripped to its bare bones, its slow and steady process abandoned in favour of an intense swift resolution, and all you are left with are its basic elements, much like the kiss in the dark with a stranger which, although fleeting, is at the same time a thrilling, profound experience and invariably leaves you craving more!
Restricted word count requires a systematic approach
I was delighted when my publisher asked me to contribute a short story to their brilliant new crime anthology alongside some stellar crime authors. Having previously only written full-length novels, penning a short story was an exciting new challenge for me, but one that also filled me with slight trepidation because I knew that creating a successful short story takes great skill on the author’s part owing to the restricted word count. This is no mean feat for any author, but it’s arguably more challenging for crime writers whose storylines and characters can be incredibly complex. On the flip side, however, there is one key similarity between them which should perhaps make the crime writer more adept at short story writing than writers of other genres, and this is that they both require a systematic approach. Just as the crime writer must observe certain rules in order to create a successful believable crime story, e.g. the early introduction and logical resolution of a crime (some do so more rigidly than others of course) similarly, short story writing demands adherence to certain conventions in order to make it work within the limited word count.
On the subject of word count, when I tell people I write novels, and that on average my books range from 90,000-120,000 words, they often look at me in amazement, seemingly in awe of how I manage to write that many words. Perhaps memories of university dissertations come to mind, the struggle to meet the required word count, the grind and stress of it all. But the difference, I guess, is that when writers get an idea, it doesn’t feel like a chore. We are too wrapped up in the story, in the lives of our characters, to worry about word count. Words come freely and naturally. They say there’s a book in everyone, but of course, not everyone has a flair for writing. Talent, a good imagination and a way with words, all clearly play a large part in the ability to write novels. That, along with steely tenacity, discipline and good editorial skills. A lot of people tend to think writing a short story would therefore be a piece of cake for those accustomed to writing an average length novel. But it’s not. At least, it wasn’t for me. I guess I’ve always been the type of writer who writes too much, rather than too little. That’s not so much of a problem with novels, where there is no maximum as such and you can afford to over-write, then cut back. But there is always an imposed limit with short stories, and therefore no room for lengthy descriptions, multiple characters and simultaneous plot lines. Unlike a novel, where you have more leeway to introduce and develop characters and plotlines as you go along, you cannot do this with short stories. It’s therefore important to draft a basic outline of the story, limit your timeframe and settings, cap yourself to a maximum of three, at a push four characters, and make sure you know which of these characters is central to the plot or rather the “hook” of the story, i.e., driving it along from start to finish. He or she doesn’t necessarily have to be good or bad but the story needs to revolve around them and where they are headed, just because it would be nigh on impossible to develop several characters and tie up their fates within this limited word count. Even with the central character, you cannot afford to go into too much depth.
It’s also vital to start strong. You don’t have a lot of words to work with, so a strong opening is key to luring the reader in and making an impression. It’s about creating a mood for the story, a certain feeling that will carry through to the end and keep the reader gripped. This is especially important with crime stories. It’s about creating that immediate sense of unease, that something isn’t quite right, that something bad is going to happen, that we need to be on guard. I certainly tried do this with my crime story which, in centring on an amnesiac writer who meets a mysterious stranger while in Italy, veers more into psychological thriller territory. As I edited my story which was considerably longer to start with, I found myself creating shorter, snappier sentences and punchier dialogue. I was forced to ask myself – do I really need that sentence? Also – if I remove word or sentence that had seemed so important initially, will it harm the story or reduce its effect, potency or impact? If the answer was no, then out it went and what I ultimately had was a stronger, sharper, leaner story that propelled it forward, served a purpose and, in doing so, ramped up the tension and suspense.
As important as a powerful beginning that grabs the reader’s attention, is ending the story on a powerful note. This is what will stick in the reader’s mind after he or she has finished reading the story and influence their decision to recommend it to fellow readers. For us crime writers, the “twist” is the obvious way of doing this, and this is what I have done with my short story. There’s nothing more satisfying than ending with a twist that hopefully leaves the reader open-mouthed and causes them to retrace their steps and try and work out where in the story the author might have provided subtle clues as to this shocking denouement.
So – no wasted words, a strong hook, ideally two or maximum four characters with one of them driving the ‘hook’, a powerful opening and finish, along with a limited timeframe and setting – all these are key in creating successful short stories, and will hopefully make you a neater, more disciplined novel writer too.
Given in Evidence is available to pre-order and is published on May 1.
Find out more about Alex Chaudhuri here: https://thecra.co.uk/find-an-author/chaudhuri-alex/
Watch Alex’s Crime Writers in Residence video for National Crime Reading Month here: https://youtu.be/wW75_2u-DXQ