Welcome back to our Intro to Short Fiction series. Time to do some short fictioning.
Before we start, have a re-read of Rebecca Makkai’s quote from the previous blog (we’ve stuck it up there for you too ^^^) and think of a funny or intriguing true story you’ve told recently – a water cooler tale to entertain your work mates, some childhood memory that randomly came to the surface, or a bit of gossip to share in the pub. Maybe you once narrowly avoided driving into a deer, or you accidentally hugged a stranger because you thought she was your mum from behind, or you broke your arm trying to do a backflip when you were six. You get the idea…
You’ve probably told this story a couple of times. In fact, you’ve probably told it in more or less the same way each time – perhaps omitting a few details here and there, or embellishing something to achieve full impact (and make yourself sound funnier/cooler/braver than you really are, of course). Maybe the first time you told it you got a big reaction to a certain choice of words, so you decide to use that exact same description the next time, and the story gradually becomes wittier and more refined each time you tell it.
There’s probably something else to it, too. Something you possibly haven’t even noticed.
We will bet you a hundred shiny pennies that at the core of your story there is some sort of fundamental human truth – even something as small and obvious as: ‘people are stupid and clumsy when they’re drunk.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s something we already know. It doesn’t matter that you’re not saying anything new. What matters is that it’s a recognisable nugget of truth that shines through – no matter how mundane or familiar the subject matter is.
The thing about stories is: it’s all in the telling. It’s what we thrive on – the myriad tiny familiar foibles that make up the human condition, told in a way that makes the listener (or the reader) nod their head and go ‘hmm, yes, I get it,’ or ‘I feel just the same,’ even if they’d never admit to it out loud. With that in mind, it’s time to get your pen (or keyboard) out…
Exercise the first: So this one time, at bandcamp…
Take a few minutes and scribble down an anecdote you’ve told over and over again (preferably under 500 words).
Don’t try to make it sound like a short story; just tell it like you’ve told it before. Write with the tone of voice you’d use if you were telling it in real life – imagine you’re writing an email to a friend or holding court over a glass of wine. “So I was on the bus home the other night and this bloke gets on with the biggest dog you’ve ever frickin’ seen – more like a horse, really – and the woman next to me starts freaking out…”. Don’t worry about anyone else reading it, this is for your eyes only. It can be as terrible as terrible can be and it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to get it down on paper (or in pixels).
Here’s an example, based on a (very dramatic) evening Sarah had a few years ago:
How’s it going? Sorry I haven’t had a chance to call but I haaad to tell you this story. I was driving to my brother’s the other evening – probably about 8.30pm and it was dark already and tipping down with rain – and I got to that bit just before the little bridge over the river, you know the one, with the pub where we got really pissed that time, and there was this woman walking along the white lines in her dressing gown and slippers. In the bloody rain! So I pulled up next to her and was all like ‘hey are you okay?’ and she didn’t even acknowledge me, she was just muttering about getting to the river.
She really didn’t look okay, so I pulled over and got out and started walking with her and she was saying over and over about getting to the river to jump off the bridge. I tried to call my bro but my bloody battery was about to run out OBVIOUSLY so I just got a quick message to him. I didn’t know what to do so I ran into the pub and was like ‘there’s a woman trying to kill herself, can you call the police, or help, or something?’. There was a barman and two young women and they just kind of looked at me like I was crazy so I said it again with more urgency ‘CAN YOU CALL THE POLICE PLEASE?’ One of them actually asked me why I couldn’t from my mobile! No battery ffs, does it matter right now? So I yelled at them and ran out again.
By now the woman was at the brow of the bridge so I ran to her and I noticed the two girls were out of the pub now watching. I was trying to talk to the woman, asking about her family and people who loved her, idk, anything to kind of make a connection, you know? But she was just saying no one cared, no one loved her, going on and on. One of the girls comes over and is banging on about my phone again and refusing to use her phone to call the police. I don’t know why, I was a bit preoccupied!
Then all of a sudden I was standing between this woman and the bridge and she’s trying to clamber over me to haul herself over! I mean, she was BIG, and I am NOT. So I’m holding on to her with all my strength trying to talk to her and thinking ‘where the fuck are the police?!’ and it must have been ten or fifteen minutes of us standing on that bridge in the rain, her repeatedly trying to make a break for the edge.
Eventually the cops arrive and bundle her into the back of the car and the policewoman says she is known to them and I can see her in the back of the police car sobbing because she’d failed again and I thought I’d be elated at saving someone’s life but shit I just wonder if she really wanted it, you know?
Exercise the second:
Now, a real challenge: can you summarise the essence of the story right down to a tweet (140 characters or fewer)? This is HARD. Don’t expect to be able to do it in a few seconds. Check out how the professionals handled this challenge over on The Guardian. And here’s Sarah’s attempt from her story above:
She said she wanted to die. I saved her life. Thought I’d be a hero, but now neither of us has peace.
This one *is* for sharing (if you want) so if you’re feeling brave, tweet us your summarised story at @writers_hq.