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!