Crafting short stories with Zoe Strachan

Zoe Strachan, well known to many club members from her contribution to the success of East Ayrshire’s Imprint Festival, gave us her insights into creating, crafting and judging short stories. She began with a reading of one of her own stories, which was sparked into life by the Kelvingrove bandstand being refurbished for the Commonwealth Games. The story focussed on a relationship that developed in the park around the bandstand but was decorated with humour and political awareness.
Like other speakers, Zoe drew our attention to the work of Muriel Spark and her dictum that in a story there should be one commanding idea. The story must be about something. This should prevent the middle section losing its way; as in the often cited quote that modern stories have a beginning, a muddle and an end.
There are no rules to writing short stories but writers need to be aware of what can, and often does, go wrong. The reader needs to know whose story this is; the all important point of view. Short stories cannot accommodate too many characters, tolerate clunky dialogue or mislead us into inappropriate surprise endings. Writers must trust their readers to work out things for themselves. It helps build tension if they are not told too much. We should avoid the story being overly neat or providing it with a final paragraph, whose only purpose is ‘to make sure they’ve got it.’ In writing a story stick with the advice about parties, ‘Arrive late and leave early.’ The world of the story continues after you’ve left.
If the story is becoming predictable or the plot is stuck, consider a range of possible outcomes from the most likely to the most absurd, Choose neither. Somewhere between the extremes will work best. Or see what happens when you throw a spanner in the works and disrupt the flow.
Judging stories is clearly an art and all our crits are prefaced by the injunction to remember that the choices are based on personal taste. However, Zoe had some helpful general hints. Think of the story to be judged as a 2000 word date – do you want to go home straight away or would you like to see it again? Having read all the stories submitted, come back to them after a couple of days. The one that was memorable is the winner.
So I’m off to check that my stories have a clear point of view, a commanding idea, are unpredictable without surprise endings, have few characters with sharp dialogue, in a world that continues after I’ve left early to catch the last bus home. That shouldn’t prove too difficult, should it?
James Rose

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