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Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Complete Story

I am so excited about judging the Greenacre Writers and Finchley Literary Festival's Short Story Competition, I have been thinking about what I will look for when I read the entries. For me, the essence of a successful story can be encapsulated in one word; completeness.

A short story is not a fragment or an extract. It must stand alone, as entrenched within its own identity as a novel, and offer an engaging opening, a satisfying conclusion and a middle which keeps the reader enthralled. 

While it is possible to extract the grit of a short story and cement it into the bedrock of a novel, it is difficult to transplant a complete piece in its entirety. Having tried to shoehorn one of my stories into a novel as a first chapter (as explained in this post for The Literary Pig) I discovered that while it was imperfect as a fully-fledged story, it possessed too many of the required elements to function as part of a whole. Like trying to squeeze a cup-cake into the body of a perfect Victoria sponge, or make a coat with three sleeves, it became a distorting appendage.

So when I read a short story, I always hope for it to be whole, with an opening hook, a strong narrative arc and a satisfying ending. I like to be taken on a journey, be it literal, metaphorical, or some of each, and for that journey to flesh out the central character, whether his development ultimately brings him back to square one again, or leaves him dangling.

The core conflict, which has to arise early on, must leave me in no doubt that the protagonist's struggle will prove to be absorbing and credible. And with regard to characters, I need them to ignite in me the same strong responses as they would illicit in a full length novel. The short story's time constraints should not impose any constraints on my emotions. 

I do not have to like this person, but I must care about him. Such a brief time is invested in the reading of a short story, but those few minutes must result in an experience which resonates for a long time. 

One of my favourite authors is William Trevor and one of his stories which springs to mind is Gilbert's Mother. Following a disturbing local event, the mother's thought-processes help to develop Gilbert's sinister and unsettling character, as does their everyday - yet somehow disconcerting - dialogue. 
At first it appeared unlikely I would warm to Gilbert as I wondered what part he might have played in the grisly happening, but such was the skill of the author in unfolding the tale, nothing could have deterred me from reading on.
My reactions to the characters, set firm at the start, began to alter. Could I rely on the facts and opinions Gilbert's mother was telling me? 
The arc of the story built unabated and the relentless tension swelled, shifting my emotional responses with such a delicate touch that by the end, my view of both characters had been changed in an artful way which felt as unnerving as the story itself. Most important of all, as I became more closely acquainted with Gilbert and his mother, my sympathy and concern kept growing.
The ending fulfilled all the needs of a successful short story, bringing matters to a satisfactory conclusion, yet without tucking its loose strands into a tidy knot. I prefer these stray ends so that I can imagine the characters' futures for myself, so that I can ponder and wonder, and so that I can continue caring.

My well-marked copy of William Trevor's story collection, After Rain, along with my notes on Gilbert's Mother.
I like to see characters pushed to the extreme, not only hanging from the cliff edge by their fingertips, but by the tips of their fingernails, pushed to the limit of endurance and even beyond it. However, when they fall, they don't have to land. Provided they follow the natural arc through which they need to travel for the course of the story, they can be left in mid-air. A short story may need to be fully complete, but it is still a raw moment, frozen in time. I imagine it as a fragile relic that has passed into and out of someone's life, valuable to those who find it only because it is whole.

Thinking about plot now, in my story, No Consequence, (click on the 'Stories' page of the website) the central character, Ashley, is about to celebrate his sixteenth birthday, a particularly monumental milestone for him. The sense of impending change hopefully encourages the reader to stay with Ashley for the duration of his story to discover what the change entails and how it will affect him and his family. 

As with Gilbert's Mother, the plot depends upon the characters in that nothing happens which is not a result of their impulses, their needs, their motivations and emotions. For me, this provides the greatest driving force for any story. External circumstances crowd into the picture of course, as they do in real life, but they do not propel the plot. All the actions emerge purely from the characters.

So, I am looking for complete stories in which the plot is steered by credible characters with a dilemma to solve. I hope to care about them despite - or even because of - their faults and failings. I want to be engrossed by the opening sentence and captivated by all that follows as the story builds to its rewarding - although not necessarily tightly knotted - conclusion. And all within a thousand words! 

I am looking forward to lots of rewarding reading, so please submit your stories by May 31st. I can hardly wait! 


  1. What a wonderful way to describe the essence of the short story, Joanna. I will refer back to your post when I write my next one. It is an art form and I hope some day that I will hit the mark and enthrall readers. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your views on the craft and I wish you a lot of enjoyment when reading all the entries for the competition. I hope April brings you lots more inspiration and new words that we can all enjoy - time and time again. Thanks for being such a wonderful and caring advocate of story telling.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Nicola. I am so thrilled about judging this competition and I know I will have a tremendous task when it comes to choosing the winner. I have always loved the short story form, going all the way back to school-days when it was such a joy to be able to study and analyse something complete and different every week. It was such a good way of discovering a wide assortment of authors. I always had a lot of ideas I wanted to express, but being cripplingly shy, never raised my hand to contribute to the discussion. So judging this competition will at last, forty years later, give me the perfect chance to proclaim my views! xxx

  2. That's an excellent article on short story writing, Joanna - thank you. They're lucky to have you as their adjudicator and I'm sure you'll have fun reading the entries. Hopefully, it won't be too difficult to decide on the winners! I'll share this post as it's so helpful to all short story writers.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment and for sharing, Rosemary. I really appreciate that. I feel hugely excited about these stories and imagine I will be reading and re-reading many times over before making a decision! xxx

  3. I agree with Nicola and Rosemary - I loved reading this, Joanna - you describe it all so perfectly. I hope you enjoy reading all the entries for the competition :-) xx

    1. Thank you very much, Teresa. It's so good to know you enjoyed it. I'm really looking forward to reading the entries and choosing the winner, but I bet it will be a hard decision to make. xxx