Fiona Robertson ~
My story collection – If You’re Happy – was the result of over ten years of writing practice. It took time to learn what worked and what didn’t, and most of the stories in the collection are from the past five years.
Short stories are tricky beasts, and when I first attempted them, I couldn’t figure out what was going wrong. To save you time (and hopefully some angst), here are my tips for writing short fiction – the ones I wish I’d known from the beginning!
1. Begin with action
This doesn’t have to be a car chase or a bomb exploding. Walking, talking or external movement (a storm, a bird in flight, whatever takes your fancy) all work well.
Stories that start with a static scene – lengthy introspection or pensive gazing out the window – generally don’t snag the reader’s attention.
2. Research makes fiction real
For a few years I wrote stories that didn’t require research (or so I thought). They were set in nebulous suburbia or unnamed country towns. I didn’t seek out information relating to a character’s occupation or background. Basically, I was lazy, and the stories were as dull as greasy dishes.
Using research vastly improved my work. I wrote a story about a second wife in a fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints community after watching documentaries, reading articles and interviews, and even ‘flying’ around the tiny town of Bountiful, British Columbia on Google Earth (for the story ‘Sweet Bountiful’). I wrote another story about a solo caver (‘A Slow Exhalation’) despite initially knowing nothing whatsoever about caving. I spent hours researching the Bungonia Caves and devoured caving blogs. I emailed a caver who’d written about this cave system on his website, and received a kind and informative reply.
Unless you’re an expert in the story material, research is paramount. It will bring your fiction to life.
3. Give the story a second layer
When I first started writing, each piece would involve a single narrative arc. One early story was about a boy whose mother was leaving his father. The boy said goodbye to his dad, and it was all very sad, but I knew there was something lacking. The story was too much on the one level; there was no richness to it.
David Vann says Grace Paley once told him, Every good story is at least two stories. I’m guessing Paley was referring to subtext, to the stories revealed rather than told.
On the surface, ‘The Ground Beneath’ (from If You’re Happy) is about a sinkhole discovered by a divorced woman – a hole in the yard which is enlarging by the day. But the woman is also lonely, she’s suffering from a number of physical symptoms, and she thinks she might be dying. This thread is as important as the growing sinkhole.
4. Let there be change
The very first story I wrote (as an adult) was about a girl whose father had depression. The tale was bleak, and it stayed bleak. The father didn’t get worse or better. That’s part of the reason the story never stood a chance.
I believe at least one character needs to change. They might have a realisation. They may spiral downwards. They might begin to change, and things look better, but at the last moment they return to old behaviours and any gain is lost. There are multiple permutations of what works, but I’d argue if there is no change whatsoever throughout the piece, there’s nothing to truly engage the reader.
5. Details orientate the reader (and often delight them, too)
As beginner writers, we often talk in generalities – He walked into the kitchen and told her he was going. And sometimes that’s appropriate. But selective details can be used to show character, setting, time and more.
It could get tedious if every sentence was along the lines of:
He raced downstairs in his black pants and blue business shirt, strode into the kitchen and announced in a strident voice that he was heading to Stremley Street in Auchenflower.
But something like:
He hurried into the morning-bright kitchen, fiddling with a cufflink. ‘I’m off, Genevieve,’ he said, not quite meeting her eyes – makes us see the scene more clearly, and buy into it, too.
Details help us trust that the writer knows exactly when and where and how the story takes place, without spelling it out. In ‘Christmas Party’ (also in If You’re Happy), it’s never mentioned the characters are in Canada in the 1970s. But it is snowing, there are bearskin rugs and cheeseballs on pottery plates, the young girl protagonist refers to a Maple Leaf hockey player and the adults are dancing to Night Fever.
6. ‘Show don’t tell’ is too simplistic (I prefer show more than tell)
After hearing ‘show don’t tell’ from a number of sources, I initially took this advice way too seriously. My stories began to resemble breathless panting tales in which there was constant action and no context. The characters had no depth because there was no backstory. They were forever sighing or rubbing their faces or creasing their poor brows because I was afraid to ever use a shortcut and outright say they were worried or afraid. I could sense something was terribly wrong with these stories, but I couldn’t work out what it was.
Eventually, through reading, I figured it out. Plenty of experienced and esteemed writers use telling – in fact some write entire stories that are mostly telling. For us early career writers, telling tends to work best when used judiciously – an emotional shortcut here, a bit of backstory there. The point is, it’s okay to use telling.
7. Tension is better than drama
I stole this advice from Claire Keegan, the brilliant Irish author. She spoke about early career writers often trying to up the stakes in a story with drama – a murder, an accident, a leap from a cliff – whereas Keegan believes the key to a good story is tension. And the tension in a fraught conversation can be far more compelling than the drama of a truck colliding with a truck. Of course, the way it’s done can make all the difference, but I took her point: ratchet up the tension not the drama.
Obviously, these tips are completely subjective. Some may not resonate for you (and let’s face it, if we all wrote the same way, reading would be uninspiring). Steal what you like, ignore what you don’t.
Thanks for reading, and happy writing!
— Fiona Robertson
Fiona Robertson is a writer and doctor. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and anthologies in Australia and the UK, and has been shortlisted for international competitions. Her story collection, If You’re Happy, was released in February 2022 (University of Queensland Press). Fiona lives with her husband and children in Brisbane.