Elements of a Good Short Story
On 17th of November 2013, twelve enthusiastic Bangladeshi writers with varied backgrounds and aspirations poured into Red Shift Coffee Lounge located at Gulshan-1, Dhaka, Bangladesh, to attend the Commonwealth Writers’ Workshop, which was led by Ellah Allfrey, Chair of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and facilitated by accomplished litterateurs Farah Ghuznavi and Arunava Sinha. Alternating between mini writing exercises and discussions – both personal and group – the workshop continued seamlessly, complemented by morning delights of coffee and chocolates.
The workshop started off with introductions of the participants and a writing exercise with the prompt: “If you were to tell your future generations about life in your time through a time capsule, what three items would you include in it?” Many participants included items, such as picture story-books, that have or will become outdated due to the ever-advancing technology. What followed next was a detailed analysis on the stories: ‘Hitting Budapest’ by Noviolet Bulawayo and ‘The Lottery (1948)’ by Shirley Jackson.
The focus of the workshop was to inform the writers about certain elements that are usually present in a good short story and that we can use to enhance our own creative works. Following are the elements that, while not mandatory, may prove useful to you for enriching your short story:
1. Character: A person who takes part in the action of a story.
2. Settings: Time and place in which the story happens.
3. Plot: Series of events and character actions that relate to the central conflict.
4. Conflict: Struggle between two people or things, for example, nature, society, self.
5. Theme: Central idea or belief.
Other elements that emerged during the analysis were:
1. Dialogue: Dialogues between characters immediately draw in the readers to the story and enable the readers to connect to the story on a personal level.
2. Timelessness: There are stories which you can read at any time and they will still seem relevant to you. Which writer would not want his/her story to be read over and over again across different time periods?
3. Tools: Details and symbols with which you strengthen your story or characters.
4. Voice: Develop your unique voice, i.e. your own way of narrating the story.
5. Language: Cultural linguistic nuances can enhance your story. For example, in the story ‘Hitting Budapest,’ the writer did not shy away from using Zimbabwean English. The language can effectively reflect the settings of the story.
6. Plot development: Subtle plot development with elements of surprise will hold the interest of readers.
7. Point of view: Get into the skin of the characters and use their eyes to perceive the world of your story.
After a short break, the participants split into small groups to get their work reviewed by the facilitators. During the evaluation session with Farah Ghuznavi, we collectively discovered some more elements, which are as follows:
1. Dialogue: Dialogues help you to cut down on bland sentences.
2. Interaction and inter-relationship: Interaction between characters and their inter-relationships must be clear to dismiss confusion and to incorporate coherence.
3. Dramatic effects: Tone down the language to pave the way for an effortless writing. Exaggeration alienates the readers and makes the story appear affected.
4. Authenticity: There is a thin line between authenticity and sensationalism. In our attempt to stand out and to make our stories palatable to the audience of other regions, we often embellish our stories with exotic but untrue cultural nuances. To avoid the latter, we need to be responsible for what we write and to substantiate our stories with credible research. While you should allow your imagination to wander freely when writing fiction, remember not to stereotype communities with your words – you will lose readers quite fast if you do. For example, female genital mutilation in Bangladesh is unheard of. It will be unwise and irrelevant to state otherwise in your story. Another example could be the dates of historical significance – you cannot change the date of Independence Day of Bangladesh, unless it is a fantasy world that you have clearly identified at the beginning of your story.
5. Flow: A well-connected sequence of events, making the story transition smoothly.
6. Time context: Make the time contexts clear and distinct from one another. For example, if the character is having a flashback, remember to depict the character’s present vividly – how different is the character now from the past (for example, how old is the character now?)
7. Details: Details make a story come alive. This, however, does not mean you write several paragraphs of uninteresting, redundant descriptions. Instead, insert one or two defining details while editing your story, and space them well over the entire story.
8. Word limit: Do not worry about the word limit while making the first draft of your story. Write a story to make it as complete as possible before editing for word limit.
9. Revise: Never send in your first draft to your editor or mentor. It is disrespectful to take up anyone’s time with unpolished work full of punctuation, grammar, and spelling errors. Send your best work.
The workshop concluded with content participants exchanging pleasantries. I believe the useful strategies imparted within this workshop will prepare writers to stir the literary scene with their creative outputs.