Saturday, 27 February 2016

Writing Short Stories - The Alphabet Challenge

Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to Clitheroe Writing Group to lead a day of short story writing. We talked about what makes a good short story and came up with a few ideas, but we also agreed that there was no absolute right or wrong way. Short stories come in all shapes and sizes and different stories work for different readers.

However, one of our warm up exercises was the alphabet challenge...

Write a story in which each word begins with a different consecutive letter of the alphabet, beginning with 'a' and ending with 'z'. (You can use connectives and conjunctions and anything else to make the story work, but keep the word count to a minimum. Your story will be a minimum of 26 words long.)

Of course, everyone could come up with 26 random words without connection, but when you do this exercise you realise you are driven to think in terms of a character (of some description), that something needs to happen to change this character (conflict), and that we have an inbuilt need to think in terms of plot. It's a tall order with such a restictive brief, but incredibly, there were some rather good stories which came out of this.

Arthur Baxter's cat delivery enterprise flourished...

Mostly, we agreed that a short story should have the same elements as a novel (ie. plot, story arc, conflict, character development and transformation) but be significantly shorter and less complex than a novel. A short story is a snapshot of a life – rather than the whole of it, and generally the plot revolves around one conflict, one (or two) main characters, and be told from a single point of view. It is usually set in one place and covers a short period of time. Also, a short story should begin as close to the climax as possible, and equally important, it should end as quickly and efficiently as it started, often with a twist.

I don't think we agreed on description. My pesonal view is that description slows down the action, but not all group members agreed with me ... and some of their descriptive passages were simply lovely. As mentioned earlier, different stories work for different readers.

As far as length goes... stories of 20,000 words are short compared to a novel, and I have seen several reference to short stories up to 10,000, but I think an upper limit of 5,000 fits the criteria (one main character, one conflict, a snaphot of life etc). As far as lower limit goes, we are looking at anything from 140 characters up. Flash fiction stories don't typically exceed 1,000 words. Micro fiction stories are sometimes defined as having fewer than 300 words. Drabble fiction stories have fewer than 100 words; Nano fiction has fewer than 55 words; Twitter fiction, aka twitterature, has 140 characters maximum...

It seems to me, that a short story is pretty much whatever you make it... but you still need characters, conflict and plot. 

Want some more inspiration? Read my next post for some story starter ideas...



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