The teacher, Australian writer Wayne Macauley, was brilliant. He started by telling us what, in his opinion, makes a good short story (he actually first said this in an interview a few years ago):
A surprising first sentence, a vivid realisation of place, an unexpected narrative voice, a sense of something unfolding or unravelling—but above all some kind of music. I am never quite sure what this music is but I always know it when I hear it. As in life, certain moments are experienced more intensely and therefore more vividly remembered when they are underscored by music. (Think driving into the sunset with your favourite song on the radio.) Short story writing is about capturing this kind of concentrated, intensified experience. Slackness, sloppiness, blah-blah-blah-ing is unforgivable in a work of short fiction—everything should be working towards a squeezing, a tensioning, a tightening. Making music, in other words.
This sums up for me what is so wonderfully satisfying about writing a short story. Perhaps my journalistic background (I was a radio journalist; writing quick, fast and tight was everything) has primed me for the genre; perhaps as a singer and musician I also love that the lyricism and rhythm of language is foregrounded in the short story.
Just as a drummer tightens his drum skins or a violinist tightens her strings to elicit the best sound, so a short story writer must constantly tighten, shorten, hold taut. There must be a concentration, a distilling, an intensification of elements. The finished short story must reduce all the architecture of writing to the minimum necessary amount.
One of the most memorable concepts Wayne talked about was throat clearing, and – crucially – what a killer it is in short fiction.
Throat clearing is what some people tend to do as they start writing a short story. They set the scene. They ease us in. But as the name of the concept implies, much of it is an unnecessary and ineffectual prelude to the good stuff.
Consider the two opening paragraphs from one of my own short stories:
The crack and slap of voices hits me as I open the door. I am ushered in by the strangely comforting smell of stale beer and downtrodden carpet. The girl behind the bar, her face tight like a punch, takes my order.
She grips at the tap with a grubby thumb, her blonde hair lank and imprisoned in a grey band. She serves me my Guinness and a little mat to go under it, then turns away to wipe glasses. The muscles work in her back as she screws the tea towel round and round and round, like freeing a stubborn cork.
Can you hear the throat clearing? What would happen if we took out the first two sentences? The start of the story, I think, would become more striking and much stronger. Scene setting here is unnecessary. You find out soon enough that we are in a Belfast pub. What really matters in this story is the girl, and what has happened to her.
So often, what is left out is the most powerful. And as Wayne suggested, when we do take something out there is a “ghost” that remains, an after-image. And this is what the reader reads. Can’t you smell the stale beer and see the carpet and hear the voices in the pub already? You didn’t need me to spell it out for you.
One of the crucial things to remember about writing short fiction is that you don’t have to start at the beginning. You can jump right into the middle of things. Novel writers can do this too, but most often they then go back and fill in the background details. A short story, however, can start in the middle and go right on until the end.
Readers fill in the gaps. That is the great pleasure of reading, and it is heightened when reading short fiction.
Cut. Kill Your Darlings. Suck a throat lozenge. You’ll be a better short fiction writer for it.