Three Reasons Why Your Short Story Collections Should Include Some Variety

Since I prepare these articles quite far in advance, I’ll be talking about last year’s Halloween stories again. In particular, I’ll be talking about why short story collections should include a somewhat varied style, emotional tone etc… – in a similar way to how the episodes of a TV series might include a mixture of comedy, horror, serious drama etc…

This was mostly because the third story in last year’s collection of “retro sci-fi” Halloween horror stories (which I’d written the day before I prepared this article) ended up being more of a vaguely Philip K. Dick-style sci-fi comedy story than the two horror stories that preceded it. At the time I wrote it, I began to worry that the series was drifting off course somewhat. But, then I realised that there were some good reasons for including this story.

So, why should your short story collections include a certain amount of variety in tone, style etc..?

1) For your own sake: Simply put, varying the tone and style of the stories in your collection can help you to write more stories. Writing exactly the same type of story over and over again can get a little bit monotonous (for both you and your readers). Not only that, including several different types of stories can also help to keep you inspired by allowing you to draw on a wider range of inspirations too.

In addition to this, it can be good emotionally too. For example, one of the problems I sometimes have with writing “serious” horror fiction is that I tend to imagine the events of the story quite vividly. This means that, even with relatively mild horror stories, I can end up in a somewhat bleak, nervous and jittery mood for at least a few hours afterwards. So, writing a more comedic story was a way to give myself a bit of a break emotionally.

Another reason why varying the style, tone etc… of your stories can be personally useful to you is that it means that a wider range of stories can be “accessible” to you. For example, although I prefer writing from a first-person perspective, the first story in last year’s Halloween collection was written from a third-person perspective. This was mostly because I realised that, in order to tell this story, I’d have to use narrative techniques that only really “worked” when I used a third-person perspective.

2) Worldbuilding and themes: If your short story collection revolves around a common location, theme and/or set of characters, then variety is an essential tool for helping your readers understand more about the central part of your collection.

By showing your collection’s common element from a variety of different “perspectives”, you can help your audience to gain a deeper understanding of it. After all, the real world includes a lot of variety. The life of, say, a detective doesn’t solely consist of solving a series of grim cases. A pub can be a place where people celebrate, as well as commiserate. The same thing can evoke different emotions in different people etc…

In addition to this, including some variety in your short story collection can help your audience to understand more about the “world” of your stories or the personality of your characters. Seeing other locations, seeing how your characters react to different things and seeing different types of stories happening in the same location can really help to satisfy (or provoke) your audience’s curiosity, which will help to immerse them more in your stories.

3) It’ll happen anyway: Simply put, when you start writing a collection of short stories, this is going to happen anyway. It seems to be an integral part of writing this type of fiction. So, you can save yourself a lot of stress by not worrying about it too much.

Seriously, even when you go back to the heyday of the short story, you can find quite a few examples of this from famous authors.

To give just one example, although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes solving murders, his Holmes stories also included things like a light-hearted “non-violent” Christmas story, a third-person perspective spy story, a story where Holmes tries his hand at being a criminal, a monster story (of sorts) narrated by Holmes, America-based historical fiction in this short novel and this one too etc…

So, don’t feel bad about including variety in your story collections. Not only will it happen regardless of whether you want it to or not, but you’re also in good company too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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The Joy Of… Shorter Stories

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A day or two before writing this article, I ended up reading two short comedy novels from the 19th century online. This wasn’t something that I’d planned to do, but after reading something online which pointed out that John Kendrick Bangs’ “The Pursuit Of The House-Boat” featured the ghost of Sherlock Holmes trying to catch a gang of pirates, I just had to read it. Since it’s out of copyright, it was very easy to find online.

And, despite the fact I don’t usually read e-books and the fact that I’d only planned to read the first part, I ended up reading the whole thing within the space of a single evening. Then I ended up reading the short novel that was written before it, mostly because I’d realised that – although I’m interested in the concept of “Bangsian Fantasy” – I’ve never actually read all of “A House-Boat On The Styx” before. Surprisingly, I actually preferred “Pursuit Of The House-Boat” though, because the humour was better, the narrative was more focused and it featured Sherlock Holmes too.

But, even though I could spend a while talking about the ways that these books were ahead of their time (and the ways they weren’t), one thing that really delighted me about both books was their length. They’re more like novellas than full-length novels. And, best of all, it doesn’t feel like there’s any unnecessary padding whatsoever. They’re short, sweet and they leave you wanting to read more.

Despite the 19th century’s reputation for “Doorstopper” novels, it was also the heyday of the short story, the segmented story and the novella too. Back then, short stories were the “television series” of the day. Whether it was monthly Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine, or longer continuous stories released in thrillingly short instalments via Penny Dreadfuls, people back then understood the importance of shorter stories.

Shorter stories were designed to be entertaining, in the way that TV shows are designed to be entertaining these days. Despite their age, a lot of shorter stories from the 19th century and early 20th century are still very “readable” today for the simple reason that they were either designed to be compelling (with lots of drama, horror, action, comedy etc..) or because they didn’t have room for lots of bloated descriptions, extensive character histories, long irrelevant tangents etc…

Back then, literature was the main form of popular entertainment. TV, computers, the internet and videogames didn’t exist. So, shorter stories had to fill that role. They also had to fulfil the most basic purpose of literature, which is to entertain. Yes, literature (and even graphic novels too) can teach us more about humanity, they can make us think deeply etc…. But, above all, they can only truly do this if they’re entertaining enough for people to want to start reading them and keep reading them.

Shorter stories are the kind of thing that can be read “on impulse” because they promise an interesting story without too much time investment. Likewise, the shorter format also means that the narratives have to be more focused, which makes them more compelling. Plus, the experience of reading a short story collection is a lot like watching a DVD boxset.

When I was seventeen, and had first discovered “Sherlock Holmes”, I actually had to ration myself to just three or four stories a day. On reflection, this wasn’t too different to what I do when I’m watching a DVD boxset of a really good TV show these days. Yet, all or most of these Sherlock Holmes stories were written before television was invented!

If prose fiction is ever to become a truly popular thing again, then length should be the first thing to change. Looking at a related subject, there’s been a lot of controversy online about the length of modern computer and video games. One of the main arguments I’ve heard in favour of shorter modern games is that people don’t have the time to play games that they used to. Well, the same is true for fiction too. But, fiction has so many advantages that games don’t.

You don’t need to spend hundeds of pounds upgrading your computer or buying an expensive games console to read a piece of modern fiction from this year. Likewise, traditional books are the original form of portable entertainment. Even modern e-book readers are very portable (not to mention that e-books can be read on smartphones, tablets etc.. too) . Books are also significantly cheaper than computer/video games are too (both new and second-hand).

If we lived in a world where novellas and short story collections sat alongside novels on the “bestsellers” shelves, then prose fiction would probably be a lot more popular than it is now. I mean, we live in a world where films and TV shows co-exist in roughly equal numbers and with an equal amount of prestige. So, why should this be any different for longer and shorter pieces of fiction?

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Tips For Writing (Cyberpunk) “Flash Fiction” Stories

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Well, for the next article in my series about writing cyberpunk fiction, I’ll be looking at how to write “flash fiction” stories in this genre.

Opinion varies about how short a story has to be to be considered flash fiction. Personally, from a writing perspective, I’d say “under 1200 words” but many defintions include things like “under 750 words” or “under 500 words”.

Like with any “unrealistic” genre, writing flash fiction in the cyberpunk genre might seem fairly challenging for the simple reason that you have to create a fictional world and include a story within a tiny number of words. But it isn’t quite as difficult to write as you might think.

1) Dialogue: One of the easiest ways to write a very short cyberpunk story is to make sure that it mostly consists of dialogue between two characters. Not only does a dialogue-heavy story allow you to include subtle characterisation (eg: the way your characters speak etc..) but it also allows you to cram a lot more storytelling into a small space too.

Why? Because, when people talk, they often tell stories. And, like in real conversation, these stories tend to be short and unvarnished. They’re usually summaries of larger stories, with enough clues hidden in them so that the listener can figure out what’s going on.

For example, here’s a piece of dialogue from this short cyberpunk story of mine. It’s about 32 words long, split into three sentences: ‘You were right, the security routines wouldn’t even detect this old clunker. But, the processor almost burnt out when I tried to run a cutter algorithm. It’s the frigging paradox of obsolescence.

These 32 words describe a series of events that probably took hours. They could easily be stretched out into an entire chapter of detailed descriptions. But, since it’s relayed through dialogue, it can be compressed into just 32 words. Because that’s probably about the number of words someone would use to describe something like that in real life.

2) Basics: One approach to take when writing cyberpunk flash fiction is to take things back to basics. In other words, your readers are probably going to expect your story to take place in a futuristic mega-city and to feature immersive virtual reality worlds. So, you don’t have to spend too long describing these things.

Likewise, if you want to appeal to a wider audience, then just tell a story about virtual reality, the internet, cyborgs etc… that mostly uses a ‘normal’ narrative voice. If it’s done well, it’ll have all the atmosphere of a cyberpunk story but it’ll be the sort of thing that anyone can jump into right away.

For example, this slightly long “flash fiction” cyberpunk story of mine takes place entirely in a virtual reality world. This is indicated by both the events of the story itself, and a few lines of dialogue which contain terminology that anyone who is familiar with computer games will recognise (eg: ‘Yeah, but the early access upgraded VIP version of the “1980s Americana” DLC. I thought that it was still in beta.’ ). However, the narrative style used in most of the story is a fairly “normal” one.

3) Traditions: Traditional-style cyberpunk narration is a thing of beauty. It often relies on “information overload” (eg: lots of quick descriptions and futuristic jargon) to make the reader feel like they’re immersed in a futuristic world.

Because of this, you can learn a lot about cramming lots of storytelling, characterisation and description into a very small space just by reading some traditional cyberpunk fiction.

For example, here’s the opening paragraph of “Count Zero” by William Gibson: “They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in New Dehli, slotted it to his pheremones and the colour of his hair. It caught up with him on a street called Chandni Chauk and came scrambling for his rented BMW through a forest of bare brown legs and pedicab tyres. It’s core was a kilogramme of recrystallised hexogene and flaked TNT.

This paragraph is just sixty words long. Sixty. Yet, in those sixty words, we get a very clear mental image of the location (eg: a bustling street in India), of the fact that it’s set in the future (eg: the descriptions of the robotic dog, the scientific terminology etc..), of the fact that the main character is on the run from someone (eg: which gives us a tantalising hint that he has a rather eventful past) and the fact that something dramatic is going to happen in the next paragraph. All of this is compressed into just sixty words.

So, yes, read some traditional style cyberpunk fiction (eg: William Gibson’s “Sprawl Trilogy) if you want to learn more about compact storytelling in the cyberpunk genre.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Quick Tips For Writing Very Short Horror Stories

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As regular readers probably know, I write these articles very far in advance. So, this is why I’ve only just got round to talking about the collection of very short horror stories that were posted here last Halloween.

Seriously, I’d written the first two of them the morning before I originally wrote this article. I finished the third one a couple of hours after writing this article. The first three short stories can be read here, here and here.

Different writers work best at different lengths and, with me at least, the shorter a piece of fiction is – the better. So, I thought that I’d provide a few tips about how to make the horror genre work in stories that are approximately 500-1000 words long.

1) It’s like telling a joke: The best ultra-short short horror stories often have a similar structure to a joke. After all, jokes are just very short stories that are designed to elicit a strong emotional reaction. They have a set-up and a punchline.

When writing a very short horror story – start with a slightly “ordinary” (or less-scary) series of events at the beginning, with only a dramatic opening sentence or two to hint at the horrors to come.

The first half to two-thirds of your story should almost be a different story altogether. Then, in the last part, introduce something new that either changes the meaning of the first part of the story, or which takes the story in a creepily different (but not too different) direction.

Or, just introduce something really shocking and horrific in the last few paragraphs (the horror writer Ryu Murakami is an expert at this, albeit within the last few pages of novel-length stories).

2) Descriptions: Because of the smaller amount of words that you have to work with, you can’t rely on an elaborate plot or complex characterisation.

As such, these kinds of stories work best when they are more descriptive than anything else – when the narrator or the main character is more of an observer than a participant in the events of the story.

So, write stories where the main character witnesses something unusual. Write stories that masquerade as newspaper articles. Write first-person stories where it feels like the main character is quite literally telling a short, and disturbing, anecdote. But, above all, focus more on descriptions than on anything else.

3) Writing style: Very short horror stories need to move fast. They need to grab the reader and keep them hooked for the few minutes it takes them to reach the shocking conclusion.

As such, your writing style should probably be very slightly more on the “basic” side of things most of the time. Kind of like it is in this article (as opposed to my usual verbose and rambling style).

This doesn’t mean that you have to dumb down your story – but it should sound a bit like an ordinary person telling a story, or a journalist writing a newspaper article.

The best way to learn how to write like this is probably to read at least a few modern thriller novels (which often make expert use of this style). If I had to recommend just one author whose novels will teach you all you need to know about this writing style, it’d have to be Lee Child.

Save the elaborate metaphors, scary similes and poetic descriptions for the really disturbing parts of your story. They’ll stand out more, when contrasted with the more basic prose that you’ve written.

4) Imagination: This is the oldest piece of horror fiction advice in the book, but it’s especially important in ultra-short horror stories. Things are scarier when they are left to the audience’s imaginations. Since you only have a few hundred words to work with, it’s often easier to only show a few details of something and leave the audience to imagine the rest themselves. It also makes your story seem larger than it actually is.

Even if your horror-writing sensibilities are fairly splatterpunk – you don’t have the time and the space to fill your ultra-short horror story with lots of elaborate grisly descriptions. So, choose the most shocking or most unsettling parts of what you want to describe and leave out the rest. Remember, your audience’s imaginations will fill in all of the other gory details.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂