The Knack Of Scant Prose: Studying The Formula Of First Prize Short Stories

Can Brad Really Win That Short Story Competition After All These Years?! 

“Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves” – Ray Bradbury.

“Writing science fiction,” wrote Ray Bradbury, “is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.”

Winning a short story competition – one of the goals that has always eluded me – cannot, therefore, be impossible.

Having entered various short story competitions, mainly the sci-fi and horror categories – my hopes and expectations were set at exceptionally stratospheric levels, until realizing that my name never even reached the extensive Runners-Up Lists… And so, my tender years – and even more brittle confidence – finally dissuaded me from tackling short story competitions.

However, recentlyBrad Burrito Fartlighter: a decidedly English galactic hero, has shot to blogosphere fame in his very own “Fartlighter Bradventures.” Come on! Where else could you find the awesome – and hopefully hilarious – escapades of a very English spacefaring rogue who digs Mexican grub and cake?! One forthcoming instalment has been set aside – for professional consultation – so studying the art (and history) of the short story has taken up my time this past week. 

The short story originated in the medium that furnished a market for it: magazines. Common belief holds that the first exponent of this format was Edgar Allan Poe. The majority of the short fiction he produced appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger from 1835 onwards. He is regarded as perfecting the art of striking the keynote – by grabbing attention immediately with a sharp opening paragraph, or even just a sharp opening sentence.

At the moment, it looks like my ideas are flowing more reliably than my typing. Once a really groovy story starts to rock, my dexterity begins to roll. All over the place… 

While frantically pummelling the keyboard – apart from getting the ‘e’ and ‘r,’ and ‘a’ and ‘s’ mixed up, my fingers now hit ‘v’ instead of ‘b,’ and bice bersa…

“A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again” – Colum McCann.  

How – and wheredoes the effective short story begin?

“Start as close to the end as possible,” remarked Kurt Vonnegut, when he included a list of essential tips on How To Write A Short Story in the Introduction to his 1999 collection of magazine stories: Bagombo Snuff Box. He also remarked that: “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

Within a certain (limited) word count, how much characterisation can you realistically inject into a “short” story? Fortunately, Fartlighter is gifted with his own band of lovable rogues: “Brad Company” – doing their nabbing-from-the-greedy-to-give-to-the-needy bit across the galaxy; therefore the diversity on display means that a rich and variable range of potential plotlines lie in wait. 

Besides breaking up the text with images and quotes, a standard Bradventure can amount to 2,600 words. Naturally, the more fun you have with creative writing, you will/can (easily) produce greater quantity. The Christmas Special turned out to be such a blast that at over 5,000 words and still TWO pivotal scenes yet to be typed, a major editing job had to be applied. Thus, my inner Poe was invoked: with less words, comes greater impact.

Sharper – and more economical – than a novel, the short story has to be vividly defined. 

Allow no wandering, no superfluous material – heck, prepare to hack without mercy. 

“A short story is not only smaller… not only simpler and more compact, it is single with a more intense concentration. It should work out a single idea; make a single point; close with a single ‘punch’; convey a single effect” – Geoffrey Ashe.   

Unbelievably, what vexes editors and judges the most involves receiving far too many submissions that offer just a situation, NOT a story!

To set my goals straight, these are the Five Components Of A Story that take pride of place in my notes, and what any short story writer should adhere to!

  • A story reveals something about the human condition, or makes a statement about what it means to be human; 
  • A story tests personal character, over and over, to reveal deeper character;
  • A story has subplots that are dramatic and thematic reflections of the journey of the protagonist;
  • A story ends in a different emotional space than where it began;
  • A story is driven by a strong moral component motivating the protagonist through the middle of the story, resulting in dramatically interconnected scene writing;

Perhaps some modern movie-makers should also study this list? 

Although the story may not have anything to say about the human condition, at least the reader should be able to derive some fun, be engaged, (be shocked?) and – above all – be entertained. 

To create a successful story – the One that sets judges’ pulses racing and jaws droppinga writer MUST convey their OWN ideas and style, to the point of remaking language; let the inexecutable unfold!

At least with my Bradventures, my imagination dares to be adventurous! It’s about time those judges experienced what my writing has become! 

Is it not…? 

“The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor,” Vonnegut continued. “She broke practically every one of my rules… Great writers tend to do that.”

Hmm, in order to get ahead, Brad has to break the rules? 

Ha! So what else is new…?! 

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water… 

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of…” –  Kurt Vonnegut.

Wish me luck! 


25 thoughts on “The Knack Of Scant Prose: Studying The Formula Of First Prize Short Stories

    • Thanks, Danica!
      I had to curtail th tips – to think I wld inspire the next set of Winners… while I still search for my name in th Runners-Up Lists in vain!
      Ha, such is my luck!
      Pretty sure YOU will blow them away before I’ve even started reading th Terms and Conditions!! 😉
      Good luck to u too!

  1. Good luck my friend! I’m excited to think of Brad Fartlighter zipping off to competitive short story land :). The whole post was intriguing too. I absolutely adore Kurt Vonnegut. I have since college. Any chance I have to read his stuff I happily take it so I was extra excited to see his wit and wisdom show up here too. You take a little competitive excitement, mix in some short story wisdom, AND add a ‘Seinfeld’ gif and you’ve got the recipe for one extra fantastic post.

    • Thank u, Michael!
      I felt th time – and confidence! – to move into competitive territory was just right!
      Yes, need to put more Vonnegut in my blog!
      Was extra excited to stumble on this advice just in time!
      I absolutely adore Kramer – I have since college! 😉

      • One of the things that constantly surprised me when I re-watch any episode of ‘Seinfeld’ is how well the show’s aged. Most of those episodes are over twenty years old now! But, save things like phones/computers and a little bit of the fashion, it feels as contemporary now as it ever did. And all their humor – Kramer certainly! – still feels as fresh as ever too.

      • Seeing how so many peeps have a Seinfeld Box Set on their shelves inspired me to put in that gif @ th last minute!
        Ended up watching some Kramer scenes last night actually – th best humour never dates!
        Imagine th movie! – Th Amazing Assman?
        Th Uncanny Assman?
        Relax, amigo, plenty more Kramer and Vonnegut to see on my site!
        Stay fresh!

      • Thankfully I’ve got my King Arfur/SF mash-up (strictly no pachyderms) to work on; plus, Lexi’s going to have her own standalone adventure soon, so 1 challenge at a time, if u pls! 🙂
        See u did a Spidey-Post before u went to see th movie – see u over there!

      • I did! I had Spidey on the mind and wanted to challenge myself to see if I could combine the webhead with some real scientific theory. I had a lot of fun writing it!

      • Sorry for th late reply – I am currently challenging myself to write a Spidey Post!
        Been researching th webhead (i.e. rewatching Cap America: Civil War(!) before watching Homecoming

      • Thanks amigo!
        Skipping that Post and pressing straight on w th Review!
        Watched Homecoming this evening – I liked it! (How cld anyone NOT tho?) But probably not as much as u did!
        Everybody get back! Brad’s blogging again!!
        It don’t stop an’ it don’t stop!

      • That’s it! Where are th spider-senses in this latest movie?! That’s got me bloggin’ even more!
        Th results have just been Posted for u to enjoy!

  2. In some ways, I find writing a short story tougher than a novel. A novel takes more time, but it’s hard to distill a story down to a few thousand words – introduce the setting and characters, make a big impact, and wrap things up leaving the audience satisfied. But it’s a fun challenge for sure! 😀 Keep up the great work and keep writing, my friend!

    • Thanks, Ash! Always good to see u here!
      Ironically, my novel is being held up cos th short stories r coming to me much much easier!
      Yes, it’s hard to distill a ripping yarn down to a few 1000, but I’ve split my ideas into a few Posts! U’ll be thrilled to learn that Lexi’s getting her own standalone adventure v soon – working on it now in fact!
      Oh. I’ll keep writing alright! V therapeutic for me at th mo.

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