The following piece is the transcript of a speech
I made at the Belgrave Library where I was
invited to judge a competition in the writing of
short stories long ago in 2000. I have recently
been asked to post it here. It is also on my
I invite you to listen to the voices of the opening sentences from the ten prizewinning stories.
‘I still have the dagger.’
‘It was only at the urging of my son that I took the trip to England.’
‘After his father died he stopped fishing.’
‘The word on the street was that Cherie had lost her fix in someone’s car and he, fat hypocrite, had driven straight to the police and ordered them to get that filthy thing out of his vehicle.’
‘He walks between the stars.’
‘I read a book once. It was called Crosses and was about these two girls who cut themselves with glass because it eases their emotional pain.’
‘Have you ever loved somebody so much you couldn’t eat or sleep?’
‘It was the last week of the summer, but more importantly the end of the disastrous heatwave we had experienced through the scorching past few months.’
‘Hello, I’m a retired racing Greyhound by the name of Rosie and I’d like to tell you about my life as a Greyhound.’
‘Hi, I’m a twelve years old girl. I love my life.’
What you have heard are ten distinctive voices. You have heard confidence. You have probably felt invited in to listen to what might be going to happen. They have probably all got your attention straight away. You want, I imagine, to hear where these beginnings will lead you.
I would like to dwell on the power and significance of the beginnings of stories for a while. I know nothing about any of the writers, and so I don’t know whether they are experienced writers or not. But I do know that quite often when inexperienced writers set out to write a story, they demonstrate, in their words, the fact that they find it difficult to make the shift from the world of everyday reality into the world of imagination. And what they often do, in order to facilitate this shift - they write a sentence or even a paragraph that in fact describes the shift. They say something like: ‘Moonlight fell on the path leading up to the door of the gloomy mansion.’ They take us on a little atmospheric journey as they make their own approach to the world of imaginary beings and events. Now there is no harm in writing such a sentence to begin with, to get yourself in place and to get going, but what every writer has to learn to do is to recognise the purpose of that sentence and then delete it. Nine times out of ten. Because there are really no hard and fast rules to writing fiction. But I promise you that more often than not the sentences of the type I just gave you (Moonlight fell on the path leading up to the door of the gloomy mansion.) are killer sentences. They do not invite the reader into a world; they warn the reader that the writer is in the process of shifting from reality to fiction, and they warn that the writer is feeling uncomfortable. The reader wants to feel safe with the confident voice of the writer. They want to hear something like:
‘Hello, I’m a retired racing Greyhound.’
Another very important element in the writing of a successful story is for the writer to have, as soon as possible, a clear idea of how the story is going to end. Too often stories will just tail off or will end on a false note, a note that doesn’t ring true as on outcome for that story. Student writers often have brilliant ideas for a story - a kind of shining concept that means they will approach the task of writing with great enthusiasm. But then the whole thing starts to fall apart as they go on. I promise you that if they had made a decision about how the story was going to end, they would probably not have had that problem.
There is something deep within the make-up of human beings that makes us long to tell stories and to hear stories. We are story-telling creatures. Now I am often asked whether stories (in competitions, in magazines and so on) have to have a beginning, middle and end. And I happen to believe that the answer is yes, they do. There is such a thing as a piece of writing that is moving, interesting, beautiful, and that lacks those elements, but it is not really a story. It might be a description, or a word game. And that’s OK. But - let’s face it - we all know a story when we hear one. If I the man who mows my lawn or mends the roof says to me: What are you writing, and I say, I’m writing a story, then he says - and he invariably says this: so what is it about? And then he says: so how does it end? He knows, just as you know, that a story begins with a set of circumstances, and that these will change for better or worse, and that the outcome will be satisfying in some way, and will emerge from the workings of the story. Fairy stories are perfect examples of stories. They begin with an event: the king dies. They proceed with the events that follow from that. There is conflict and tension. And they end when the conflict and tension are resolved by certain discoveries, deaths and marriages. Please don’t think that I am advocating only the writing of fairy stories. I merely use them as a good example of the timeless human response to stories.
Now what I have described so far might be called the impulse for the story. The writer is then face with how to construct the thing in order to best present the characters and the dilemmas. You might begin with the final event, for instance, and then fill the reader in on how things led up to that. You might tell everything from the point of view of the main character, or from the point of view of the policeman, or the elephant. These are decisions to be made by the writer when confronted with the material. Writers ask themselves which would be the best way to bring the story and the reader together.
For don’t forget that writing fiction, telling stories, is a form of communication. There are at least three parts to the contract: the writer, the story and the reader. And it is the writer’s job to construct the story I such a beguiling way that there will be a reader. The writer has a responsibility to engage and even entertain - and certainly to move - the reader. Writing a story is job you give yourself - nobody really asks you to do it - so you have to be really strong and convincing. Which brings me back to the idea of confidence. Your voice must be confident. And such confidence is linked to urgency. Any story you tell should really be a story you feel you urgently need to tell. When that urgency is present, the decisions about how to begin, how to end, how to construct what happens in between - these will largely be made at an unconscious level. It is useful to recall the story of Scherezade - she had to interest the Sultan in her stories night after night so that he would not kill her, but would keep coming back for more (stories).
Sometimes students ask me whether there are any subjects that are taboo as material for short stories. I don’t know of any. Of course there are fashions - and sometimes it is OK to follow fashion, and sometimes it isn’t. The range of subject matter in the ten winning stories is very wide. What I wanted was to feel engaged and moved by what I read. There are a couple of things to bear in mind - short stories have a limited number of characters, and the reader’s attention needs to be focused on a limited range of events - perhaps just one event or one aspect of life. I am asked about dialogue. Well, dialogue is a wonderful way to move the story along and to demonstrate the characters. But some people are better at writing dialogue than others. There is no rule that says there needs to be dialogue. If you are not so good at it, don’t do it. Go away and practise, maybe, and write dialogue another time.
I spoke of urgency. The winning story in the adult category ‘Joey’ is a beautiful narrative which speaks with quiet, confident urgency. It is immaculately constructed, employs lively dialogue, and draws the reader through the events to a moving and deeply satisfying conclusion. There is the interplay of close friendship and enduring love, marred by tragedy, between the distinctive characters of the narrator and Joey.
The winner of the teenage section is a story called ‘Distance’. This is a remarkably successful story which uses the element of dream in a very powerful way. It is dangerous and difficult to use dream in fiction. The writing is vivid and lyrical, and the characters are alive in the mind of the reader. The principal character is particularly firm and engaging.
The junior section was won by a story of disaster. ‘Aftermath of the Quake.’ The description is economical and very convincing, told in the first person. There is tension, and then there is relief, and final resolution. A happy ending for the family who are safe, but a scene of devastation all around. This is an ambitious and sophisticated story.
Then the winner of the residents’ category ‘That Gipsy Touch’ is a strong and well constructed story with a very successful sex scene. This story has several vivid characters and an atmosphere of violence, mystery and conflict.
These stories and the runners-up will be bound and made available in the library. Please read them. You will be amazed and entertained. And if you are hoping to write stories of your own, you will find in these inspiration and even instruction. For people who want to write stories must, I believe, read stories. Reading gives you the rhythm of what a story is. You will learn far more about writing from reading good stories than you will from listening to me.