In Part 1 of this post, we explored some of the subjective hurdles that may be encountered by students when drafting their Creative Writing for Discovery. Now we will delve more explicitly into the craft of constructing a powerful short story, of allowing a potent discovery to unfold in the short space allocated to you in the exam.
The short story form has its technical demands, and the finest exponents of it all met the demands resplendently. Short stories are built on fine observations of character, of consciousness, of situations, of the extra-mundane within the mundane. They are, like the novel, only historically recent phenomena, for we only began to take ourselves as serious subject matter a few seconds ago according to the Big Bang clock.
The first, and perhaps most important tip, is to study the greats. It is a sign of youthful callowness and immaturity to want to find your own voice first. Look to the greats, study their timelessness, their ability to resonate deeply in their many readers continents apart. Here are my personal recommendations:
- James Joyce, Dubliners
- Ernest Hemingway, Collected Short Stories
- Virginia Woolf
- David Malouf, Collected Short Stories
- Guy de Maupassant (Almost exclusively wrote in this medium)
- Roald Dahl
- Patrick White
- Edgar Allen Poe
- Tim Winton, The Turning
You’ll be sure to pick up the diction and voice of these greats as you read them. I always recommend the last selection for HSC students, in part because we should take pride in the achievements of our fellow Australians. But this is the least of it. Winton writes with a sensitivity and lyrical beauty of the real stuff of our lives, of respect for “ordinary lives” as opposed to gawdy, pampered celebrities. He writes with heart of subjects close to home. Big World, the first in the selection, is about graduation, schoolies hang-overs and a friendship in decline. Failure, the scar tissues through which the past continues to speak, and forgiveness and resolution all play their part in the lives of his fictional creations who sparkle and pulse with their flaws and convictions with an intensity greater than some who have popped up in existence.
So here’s the biggest tip: always write of what you know. You’re lives are interesting and poetic, but perhaps you don’t know it yet. Write of the struggles and conundrums you face, the fears and hopes. The stuff that makes us human. A marker can always tell when a story has been written with sincerity and a probing drive for insight and examination, and after a day’s marking in poorly ventilated, underfunded halls, they’ll thank you for it and relish it.
Another important tip: stay clear of long, convoluted plot-driven stories. You simply do not have the time and word count for it. Look at some of the shorter examples from the writers listed above, say Woolf’s “Haunted House”, a title that seems to promise a Gothic ghost story yet is almost exclusively comprised of intense, psychological examination, a meditation on impermanence. The house is haunted not by spectres, but by the former, anonymous owners of the same dwelling, how their vanishing chills the equally anonymous narrator. It makes for riveting reading though.
Structure you story like a vignette. Short films and even comedy sketches can be instructive in this respect. Make a conscious decision about what theme you wish to explore.
Remember you short story is about discovery. This is fortunate, because almost all short stories develop to a particular epiphany at the end, where something is revealed about the world or about the character. It will be the culmination of the theme you’ve chosen to explore in the story.
There you have it, HSC short story 101. Happy writing!