Let’s not give the short story short shrift!

Samit Basu

The short story has been an effective and popular storytelling medium for as long as humans have told stories, and predates both publishing and even writing. It’s a form that has always been relevant, and will always continue to be.

Perhaps because of the diversity and complexity of this form, one thing that must always be remembered about the short story is – there is no one true way of either reading or writing a short story, and the range of reader responses to stories is as wide and complex as the innumerable ways of writing them, across languages, cultures, eras, and media.

The short story as an art form in itself is, of course, an entirely different animal from the short stories that students have to write in school. Brilliant, experienced, professional authors can take years to perfect their short works, but students mostly have to scramble together short stories – at best, on urgent deadlines, at worst, in a few minutes during an exam. So it is perhaps unfair to compare these practices, or to expect anything but bare-bones functionality from the work students produce under these circumstances. It is also quite unfair to expect teachers to use these exercises to inspire or develop within students a love for reading, or writing, as examinations or homework are very unlikely to instill a passion for creativity, except perhaps creative ways to survive these assignments. Students who already love reading and writing will find these assignments easy, and the rest will struggle past them and survive. But these pragmatic details aside, it’s entirely likely that reading short stories for pleasure, if students can be encouraged to do so, is very likely to send them off on joyous journeys of discovery. The Internet is especially full of diverse and wonderful short fiction, whether in the form of cutting-edge literary magazines, or popular fan fiction forums (chances are that several students are already obsessed with these, and don’t even realize they have a love for reading because they see them as entertainment). Even the oft-derided social media platforms are treasure-hoards of brilliant short-form storytelling in different media. In today’s visual, fast-paced, multi-tabbed, attention-deficit, information-saturated world, everyone is already constantly thinking of finding ways to communicate more effectively, more beautifully and more entertainingly over short stretches of storytelling. So it is not especially challenging to get students interested in short stories – they already are. The challenge might lie in persuading them to not see short stories as homework, or engaging with short stories in more formal contexts, or eras or places they cannot relate to. But we live in a world where storytelling is a necessary skill and time is short even for young people. The project, therefore, becomes not one of evangelizing students into any predefined format of literature, but of getting them to develop skills they already want to into formats and structures that they might not know they are likely to enjoy, and might be predisposed to resist.

How do students get better at writing short stories?

In the interest of brevity, let’s discuss only the basic framework through which one might look at short story writing as an absolute beginner, or as a student interested in creating a working short story under fairly harsh constraints of length or time – probably both.

In the interests of communicating effectively and simply, especially with external readers who don’t know the student well, it’s probably best to use a basic three-part structure like most films, plays, and essays do – the beginning, the middle and the end. Students who are natural storytellers can probably just write their stories organically without preparation, but students who don’t have a natural grasp of this should be encouraged to work with a rough draft where they quickly think of the given topic, figure out an event which could be the beginning, middle, or end of the story, and work out the other two parts from there. These other parts could either be other events or consequences or precursors to the single event that enhance the fundamental idea dramatically, thematically, or experientially.

Once this basic idea is in place – what is the story about?

Then there are several filters through which one can look at the actual execution of the writing. It isn’t necessary that all of these are central to the process, but at least one needs to be done well for the story to work, for the creation of a spine or throughline which creates an emotional or cerebral impact on the reader. These are the fundamental elements of storytelling in any medium at any length, and they are all interlinked: each element well executed will also contribute positively to the others. There are no universally correct or measurable ways to tell stories well, of course, but in the balance of these elements lies the key to good writing.

Plot: How many events occur in the story? Are they fittable within the word count? Are they in a logical and believable chain of cause and effect? Do they create a dramatic impact?

Character: Who is your main character/characters? Do they transform, grow or otherwise during the story? What makes them interesting?

Theme: Is your story based on the exploration of a specific idea, argument or emotion? What are the stages of conveying this dramatically and narratively, through a person or a group? How do we make sure this is a story and not an essay?

Style/voice: How do we make the narration interesting and entertaining for the reader using elements like description, dialogue, action and articulation of thought and emotion through internal monologue? While it’s not right to expect students to have distinct styles or voices, what kind of storytelling are they good at/naturally drawn to?

How can teachers help develop these skills?

There are essentially two questions to consider here.

First, what is the desired result of the story writing exercise? If it is to prepare the student for an exam, then this requires trend analysis and pattern recognition on the part of the teacher. In addition to giving general feedback (that is, general, unbiased and non-judgmental tips on improving the story from a creative point of view) there is the additional task of ensuring that nothing in the story might be objectionable to a hypothetical examiner, or cause the student to lose marks. Thus, the teacher serves the function of external-exam censor, commissioning editor in a publishing house, and legal department of the publisher. It’s important, should this function become necessary, to assure the student of the value of their opinions and feelings as a storyteller while pointing out the pragmatic risks of not only causing offence, but even of falling outside the taste/knowledge spectrum of an unknown third party reading the story.

Second, and more importantly from the teaching/improving storytelling skills point of view is exploring, with the student, how the story could have been told better and could have been more of what the student intended. The teacher then should not focus on their personal biases and tastes of what a great short story is, or encourage the student to mimic the voices and styles of classic storytellers. Instead, the teacher must cultivate empathy, and see what the students’ intentions were with their story. The goal is: how do I make this story better at fulfilling its creative objectives but retain its character? Would an adjustment to a specific storytelling element address this? Is there a specific mistake or set of mistakes that the student is making that is preventing the story from being effective? Is it just a lack of practice – for example, a student attempting a story that would take the length of a whole novel or film to tell effectively, or getting stuck after a promising beginning – or is it something deeper, such as a genuine lack of a fundamental beginning-middle-end storytelling structure, or a fundamental inability to communicate or express themselves? Knowledge about the specific student is priceless here – can they speak confidently but are unable to put their thoughts down in writing? Are they bored or intimidated by the entire exercise and need redirection into talking about issues or people or situations they feel strongly about? Do they find the whole process confusing and need to be guided into breaking down the problem into smaller parts and solving them individually? Are they just not used to telling stories, or genuinely dislike the whole project and need a more rigorously defined pattern or structure they can adhere to for practical reasons until they can step away from this whole component of their studies at the earliest possible opportunity?

Storytelling can be an infinitely joyous and rewarding process, but it can also be infinitely challenging and complicated. Just as there is no one true way to tell or read a story, there is also no universal guideline to improve either stories or storytellers, or objective way to measure common sense-based improvements.

Fortunately, the key skills involved in helping students become better storytellers – empathy, flexibility, patience, rigour – are also the key skills that teachers need to cultivate in themselves. So whether or not teachers can effectively improve students’ short story craft, attempting to do so will help them improve at their own work.

The author is an Indian novelist. His most recent novels, published by Tor in North America, are The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport (Goodreads Choice SF shortlist, 2023) and The City Inside (best SFF of 2022 – The Washington Post and Book Riot, JCB Prize shortlist). He’s published several novels in a range of speculative genres, all critically acclaimed and bestselling in India, beginning with The Simoqin Prophecies (2003). He also works as a director-screenwriter, comics writer, and columnist. Samit lives in Delhi, Kolkata, and on the internet. He can be reached at samitbasu.work@gmail.com.

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