The next few posts will be about great short stories and what makes them so good. There is, naturally enough, no single magic recipe. But it seems to me that there are three main types of recipe, or perhaps three distinct types of ‘short story cookbook’, each as different in style as, say, Delia Smith (precision and attention to detail), Jamie Oliver (freewheeling and creative) or Jack Monroe (bare essentials).
For the short story there are those that grab the reader with the power of voice, usually from the first sentence; then there are those that work through character; and finally those that work through situation and plot. I’m not suggesting for a moment these approaches are mutually exclusive. All good short stories have elements of all three cookbooks, because any good writer writes with voice, character and plot. But I’ve come to realise – perhaps more slowly than I should have done – that my favourite short story writers tend to exemplify one approach over another, and it is their flair in enabling either voice, character or plot to carry a story successfully that makes their stories stand out.
Here, then, are some examples of ‘voice-led’ writers:
Grace Paley (1922-2007) is probably my favourite short story writer of all. Her voice is distinctive and brilliant: New York Jewish, unpredictable and able to achieve astonishing effect in very few pages. She writes about life’s cruel truths with humour and deceptive lightness of touch. Here’s the opening from Goodbye and Good Luck(1959):
I was popular in certain circles, says Aunt Rose. I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don’t be surprised – change is a fact of God.
How’s that for a voice, established unequivocally in three short sentences?
American writer Adam Haslett’s story Notes to my Biographer from his 2002 collectionYou Are Not a Stranger Here is written in the voice of a father suffering an extended manic episode. It’s sustained pace and power is remarkable. This is how it opens:
Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and have never joined a support group in my life. At seventy-three, I’m not about to change. The mental health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age.
And here is the opening from Irish writer Colin Barrett’s story Bait from his 2014 collection Young Skins. Note how effectively it establishes situation and character in just one sentence through a distinctive voice.
This was a summer night about a thousand years ago and myself and my cousin Matteen Judge were driving round and round and round the deserted oval green of Grove Park estate, waiting to see what we would see.
Voice isn’t only established in first person narratives. It can be achieved with equal effect in third person or in second person, as here, in British writer Sarah Hall’s stunning story Bees from her 2011 collection The Beautiful Indifference.
One morning, not long after you’ve moved into the new house, you’re out in the garden and you notice that the ground is littered with insects. They lie here and there, like dark smuts between the tawny southern pebbles, leggy and fine-winged. There are dozens and dozens of dead bees. You were attending to something on the ground, a weed or perhaps a blown sweet wrapper, bending over to pick it up, and now, scanning the earth, you can see the creatures strewn all about. Stiff, fossil-looking things. Black capped, like aristocrats at a funeral, their antennae folded, with mortuary formality, across their eyes.
Hall uses voice to establish a lyrical, haunting quality which is sustained throughout this unsettling story, connecting a human predicament to the natural world, which is Sarah Hall’s forte.
It’s also worth making the point here that a really good short story writer can write equally convincingly in the voice of a young woman or an old man, or for that matter a parrot or a pine tree. It’s the language and rhythms they use rather than the narrative viewpoint that makes the voice-led narrative distinctive.
Next time, we’ll take a look at ‘character-led’ writers of the short story.