The Short Story Mix-Tape

By Foday Mannah.

They often say creative writing takes inspiration from true life events. Take for example the story which I read in a Newsweek article under the headline  EBOLA’S SHUNNED HEROES: THE WOMEN BRINGING UP THE BODIES IN SIERRA LEONE. When the epidemic hit the home country a few years ago, a select number of women bucked cultural trends which dictated that women should have no part in such a grim task. These women however reasoned that the dignity of female victims should be respected and as such it was only fitting that fellow women were involved in preparing them for burial.

Which got me thinking. What if one such woman became the protagonist of a short story? In essence the subject matter was worth exploring in fiction; what remained was ensuring that the narrative did justice to the issue. Which got me thinking of how to write a worthy short story.

I’ve often heard that with the short story, a key component is “economy of detail”; the writer has limited space within which to develop plot, setting, characterisation and theme. I’ve also heard that all good short stories should feature “one major event which significantly influences and affects the protagonist.” I’ve also heard that the most important component of any good short story is “the hook” – an effective opening that captivates and engages therefore compelling the reader to stay. Another key consideration is the use of time. Does the short story stretch over a significant period or is the narrative constrained to say for example a single experience in a single day? And then of course, several writers suggest that there must always be an element of conflict in all good short stories.

Which had me thinking that a good strategy would be to “listen” to a mix-tape of my favourite short stories which I have read and taught through the years. Anthony Horowitz’s Monsters subtly explores family conflict over a single Halloween evening before reaching a shocking climax. I definitely recommend Monsters particularly as it represents a masterclass in the development of setting and characterisation alongside plot.

And then there’s also the question of narrative voice – who tells the story? Do I use the first or the third person? Bernard Mac Laverty’s Father and Son is a brilliant example of the effective use of narrative voice as it features both a father and son alternatively narrating segments of the story in short bursts, again building up to a memorable climax. Another strength of Father and Son is the claustrophobic setting which has the protagonists living under one roof whilst remaining riven by demons of their collective pasts.

And there are the stories that deliver a dilemma in the very first line, an example being Chimamanda Adiche’s Sola which explores political oppression in The Gambia and opens with the line “Sola has disappeared.” Or a real favourite with the pupils, Janice Galloway’s Mary Moon and Stars, which opens with “Mary Moon peed the floor first day of school.”

But again do we have to have cold water to the face in the very first line of the story? Valerie Thornton allows the narrative to marinate in her story Sharon, the Ferryman’s Daughter, which dedicates a whole page to presenting Sharon as a sympathetic underdog with circumstances stacked against her before allocating her a boyfriend, a plot point which drives the rest of the story. Malorie Blackman’s Alone Together similarly takes time to establish character before presenting a dilemma in the second part of the story – a disillusioned teenage boy who finds himself in an awkward situation with his best friend’s mother.

And how long does a short story have to be especially if the writer is not constrained by a word count which is often the case for writing competitions?  Again, variety abounds in this respect. Alice Walker’s The Flowers although just over a page in length is brilliant in its thematic depth and aptly delivers the grave circumstances faced by a child in the American Deep South. Another brilliant example is Zadie Smith’s Mortal Terror, handed to me by a work colleague a week ago, which features a supernatural entity that preys on women; an apt metaphor for issues in contemporary times and no doubt brilliant to analyse in a critical essay! Then there is another favourite, Alan Spence’s Gypsy which stretches almost to novella proportions in its examination of bigotry and bullying amongst Glasgow school boys.

All of which leaves me to conclude that there is no one specific blueprint to writing a short story. Perhaps it makes sense to just start typing and see how my narrative unfolds. After all there’s always the good old editing process. 





3 thoughts on “The Short Story Mix-Tape

  1. Yes, there are so many things to think about when writing a story, and many of them instinctive and come to us from reading and an in-built appreciation of story, which is why I agree with your closing comment that we should write from the heart in the first draft and then revisit to decide on things like whether the opening will grab the reader by the throat or take them by hand.


  2. Foday, I really enjoyed following your thought process on how to construct a short story in this post. I also like to go back to favorite stories and try to analyze what made them work. I think your idea of focusing a story on one of these women is fascinating – I would definitely want to read!


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