The Short Of It …

Zoë Sharp

Short stories are a whole different ball game to writing a novel. Most people start with shorts and work their way up. Maybe because I like to do things backwards, I wrote novels long before I tried my hand at anything shorter.

And when I did, it was entirely by chance, rather than choice. I happened to be at a Northern Chapter lunch for the Crime Writers’ Association. (‘Northern Chapter’ sounds a bit Hell’s Angel-like, I know, and the idea of all those distinguished authors turning up patched, on Harleys, plays havoc with my imagination.)


As we funnelled through the doors to take our seats for lunch, Martin Edwards, editor of the CWA short story anthologies, glanced across at me and said, “You ought to write me a short story for the next anthology.”

I was somewhat taken by surprise, enough to reply, “Erm – yes, OK.”

So, having verbally written the cheque, I then had to cash it by actually coming up with a story good enough for inclusion. This caused me a few sleepless nights, until I remembered something about a local Dangerous Sports’ Club, which had been prevented from indulging in their Sunday morning bridge swinging activities from a disused viaduct.

The reason for this was because the local farmer whose land they had to cross was a strict Methodist, and he strongly objected to all the cries of “Jeeesus CHRIST!” that were heard when people jumped off the bridge on the end of a bit of rope.

And from that came ‘A Bridge Too Far’, a Charlie Fox tale which subsequently appeared not only in GREEN FOR DANGER, but later also in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as well.



Since then, I haven’t exactly been churning them out on the short story front. In fact, I’ve only written another eight. To my constant amazement, they’ve all been either published or accepted. One – ‘Tell Me’– was even longlisted for an award and turned into a short film, and another, ‘Served Cold’ was shortlisted for the CWA Short Story Dagger.

Despite my lack of prolificness (is that a word?) in this area, I do find short stories a liberating experience. They enable you to try out viewpoints or characters or styles that you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to do. I’ve occasionally used them to try out an idea for a character, to see if it appeals enough to be the central protagonist of a longer work. I don’t know why I don’t do more of them.

Well, OK, yes I do know. Without a deadline, it takes me a long time to write a short story. Without a theme, or some kind of restriction, it takes me longer still. (Just ask poor JT, who’s been waiting for me to scribble the second part of a joint short story for months! Sorry, JT, I’m just crap, aren’t I?)

But, I’ve just had the pleasure of judging a short story competition, which gives you a whole different perspective on the enterprise. I was asked by Lancashire Libraries to come up with the opening line, which could then be written up as either a short story of up to 5000 words or as flash fiction for up to 500 words. The opening line was: 

‘I always swore, if ever I came back to Lancashire again, I’d kill him.’

The event was split into three areas, with me being given the entries for the North of the county, and fellow local crime writers Nick Oldham and Neil White taking South and East.

I’ve just finished going through my selection of entries, and have a clear standout to take to the judging meeting next month, where Nick, Neil and I will decide which of the three we’ve each chosen will be the winner.

Reading these stories made me analyse what it was about the short story or flash fiction format that appealed to me. And what didn’t.

I’ve always liked spare prose, which is why I find Robert B Parker’s work so compulsively readable. In a short story, by its nature, every word has to count, and the more you can say with as few words as possible, the better.

Because there’s little space for character development, a few well-rounded characters always seems a better choice than a big cast, particularly in flash fiction.

Short stories are a prime example, for me, of that TV maxim – get into a scene late, get out early. I’ve been constantly trying to do that in my novel writing. (I even threw out the first three chapters of one book because it took that long to reach the point in the story mentioned on the jacket. In which case, why waste three chapters getting there?)

And what about a twist in the tale?



OK, maybe not that kind of twisted tail, but you know what I mean. Does a short story need a twist ending – particularly one that you really don’t see coming? Jeffery Deaver is a master of this type of short story. I read through his anthology TWISTED a few years ago and pretty much decided that he’d got it nailed.

So, in judging the Lancashire Libraries competition, I was looking for good snappy writing, well-formed characters, convincing dialogue – which seemed to be the one area where a lot of entries were weakest – adherence to the theme/opening line in some form, and a beginning-middle-end structure with something surprising at the end of it.

I think I found one that fitted the bill. It remains to be seen if my fellow judges agree, or if their favourites can top my choice. That I find out at an evening event at County Hall in Preston on November 10th …

Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on short stories. Do you read them or not? Do you write them or not? Do you feel they need a twist, or a structure, or can they be more of a freeform thing? Do you have any thoughts on flash fiction?

This week’s Word of the Week is boustrophedon, which is an adjective or adverb to describe (of ancient writing) bi-directional text, mostly seen in ancient manuscripts and other inscriptions, where the writing runs alternately from right to left and from left to right. It comes from the Greek boustrophedon turning like ploughing oxen, from bous ox, and strophe a turning.

50 thoughts on “The Short Of It …

  1. Shizuka

    Usually I don't read them.
    In shorts, things seem to happen and resolve too abruptly or
    nothing much happens at all (esp. in literary fiction).
    The twist ending can be cool, but sometimes just leaves me going, "Huh."

    One recent exception: Laura Lippman's HARDLY KNEW HER.
    The characterizations are so interesting and mostly so subtle
    that they felt like mini-novels.

  2. Cornelia Read

    I'm not a huge reader of short stories, but I'm starting up again. I especially don't read them in The New Yorker. I'm more of a cartoon person. But hey, I'm shallow. Love stories by Flannery O'Connor, Salinger, and Cheever, though. Also Shirley Jackson.

  3. PK the Bookeemonster

    I don't usually read short stories though I did get the anthologies by Mike Ashley that featured historical mystery authors back when I was first getting into that sub-genre and was introduced to a lot of new authors for me to find out more.
    I understand that short stories are more difficult to write because of the condensed storytelling but can also have more impact because of the same reason.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Shizuka

    I suppose I find more of that problem (things seeming to be resolved too abruptly) more in flash fiction rather than short stories. I like a couple of thousand words at least to get into the swing of things. I've never seen the point of a short story that doesn't go anywhere, and therefore feels more like a scene from a longer work than a story in its own right. I like SOME kind of resolution.

    And Laura is a terrific writer.

  5. Debbie

    Boustrophedon-this just seems like such a logical way to read!

    My husband just brought me paper and an ink cartridge to print out my MS. Actually, he said it was to print out, 'Gone With The Lord Of The Rings' so no, I don't think I'll be writing short stories anytime soon. You need to be concise and have a well rounded vocabulary, knowledge of adjectives and adverbs, as well as being adept at handling metaphors. Anyone reading my comments knows that I do go on…. 😀

    Btw, I just have to add this here…I was going to sneak it into the comment but, it's my ten year wedding anniversary today and I couldn't help but mention it (actually I didn't really try that hard not to)! Known each other eighteen years so I guess short stories are not something I'm good at.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Cornelia

    I would never call you shallow! And what's wrong with the funnies? As long as they're funny. I've only tended to read short stories in anthology book form rather than in newspapers, where there are a lot to choose from.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PK

    I think writing shorter is always harder, so turning an idea into a fully rounded short story is a skill I only possess on occasion ;-]

    Reading historical shorts to get into a feel for that genre is a great way of doing it.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Debbie

    I always try and write my books shorter than they eventually end up. I just keep writing to the end of the plot, which always seems to mean they go over 100k rather than land under it. Ah well.

    And congrats to you and your Other Half on reaching your first decade. Andy and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary on July 4th – I believe in the States everybody let off fireworks for us… ;-]

  9. Spencer Seidel

    Ha, Cornelia! I was just going to write the same thing about the New Yorker. Call me ignorant, but usually I read winning entries from short-story contests or the New Yorker and think, "Really?"

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Spencer

    "I read winning entries from short-story contests for the New Yorker and think, "Really?"

    Gulp, well, I hope nobody reads the eventual winner from the Lancashre Libraries competition and thinks the same thing…

  11. Louise Ure

    I don't read many short stories. While Spencer is a sucker for plot, I'm a sucker for character and the longer I have to live with that fictional character the better.

  12. Robert Gregory Browne

    Kills me to write short stories. The one I wrote for the Killer Year anthology started out as a novel idea. I got several pages in and decided I didn't have enough story to sustain 400 pages. So I figured a way to turn it into a short.

    The only other short story I've written appeared as a two-parter in EasyRiders magazine many, many years ago. My first professional credit. It's a forgettable story, indeed.

    I think I'll stick to longer work.

  13. Allison Davis

    Love them…Alice Munro for one. I think they are much harder to write…I love them for short airplane rides and to coddle my short attention span. Then I also read a lot of poetry so I like the weird short stuff. Good poems are like short stories (read e.g., Tony Hoagland)

  14. toni mcgee causey

    Congratulations, Debbie! I love that you mentioned your anniversary here. 🙂 (Today is my husband's birthday, so we're about to go out and celebrate.)

    I enjoy the short story form, and for years, picked up collections. Eudora Welty's "Why I Live At The P.O." is one of my favorites, as is a collection from Ellen Gilchrest (I cannot remember the title of the collection, but I still remember the stories, all these years later.)

    I've written 3 post college. (I don't really count the ones I wrote for class–they were learning projects.) One was "A Failure to Communicate" which was in the Killer Year Anthology. I wasn't sure what to write and was getting frantic and the day before the deadline, finally had inspiration and wrote it in an afternoon. That's typically how short stories show up, in one sudden whoosh. The second was "Heat" which SMP asked me to do as a prequel for the Bobbie Faye series, and it had to not include Trevor, it had to be about Cam, so that one was interesting as a challenge.

    The third one is in an anthology which just came out this week, and JT has one in it as well. This was one of those crazy internet things, where a bunch of people were writing flash crime fiction set in a big box discount store like Walmart, and the story had to be 800 words. It seemed like a fun challenge when Steve Weddle asked me to participate, and I have never written a flash piece, so it was a major challenge to get a plot and character and twist in so few words. The book is made of a great combination of already published and now newly published authors and it's called DISCOUNT NOIR and is available in ebook form. The Kindle version is here:

  15. Gar Haywood


    I can't imagine the point of a short story that DOESN'T have some kind of twist at the end. And I mean any kind of short story — crime, mystery, romance, literary, whatever. Otherwise, why bother? IMO, every time a writer sits down to write anything, it should be with the intent of surprising the reader in some way — giving him or her something they weren't expecting — and the best time for that realization to dawn is at the end. You want to leave the reader thinking, "Oh….!"

    I love writing short stories, but have never written one without knowing what the twist will be at the end first.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Spencer

    "The writing is always wonderful, but I'm a sucker for plot, I guess."

    Me, too. A story has to do just that first and foremost for me – tell a story. Otherwise it just smacks of showing off ;-]

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Rob

    I find short stories hard, too, but they can come in amazingly useful as a way to try out a new character for a novel, in a complete scene where you get to see how they react to a problem and how they cope.

    And from what I've seen of Easy Rider magazine, people don't buy it for the short stories … ;-]

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    I never take plane journeys that short! Mine are usually 8-9 hours at least to get over to the States, so a novel's fine for that.

    Laurie Lee did a wonderful book of short stories called I CAN'T STAY LONG, which are very much like prose poetry and are some of my favourites, so I guess you could say that good short stories are like poems, too.

  19. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    "You're forgiven – not like I've had a lot of time to dedicate to it myself…"

    Thanks for being so understanding. You're a star, as always ;-]

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    Hurrah – many happy returns to Carl! Wish him a good one from us.

    It's surprising how creative a rapidly encroaching deadline can make you, isn't it? I wrote one of my best short stories on a car journey. Admittedly, it was quite a long car journey, but even so…

    And I wrote a couple of shorts for SMP, connected with the Charlie Fox series. The first one was to go in the mmpb edition of FIRST DROP, and was called 'Postcards From Another Country'. The second was supposed to go in the mmpb of SECOND SHOT, and was called 'Off Duty' and was much more carefully written to slot in between the stories of that novel and the one that came after it. In fact, I even added in a little detail from the short story into THIRD STRIKE … but then it didn't go in the book after all, so it's ended up elsewhere.

    I was always a bit niggled by the fact that I hadn't really made 'Postcards' link in with the books, but in the latest CF book, I bring back a character who first appeared in that story, so it's taken a while, but I got there in the end.

    DISCOUNT NOIR looks like a great idea. I love themed anthologies.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Gar

    "I love writing short stories, but have never written one without knowing what the twist will be at the end first."

    I hate to admit that I always know how my stuff is going to end, and sometimes that's the first image I get – be it for a short or a novel. The trick is getting there in a surprising way. Mind you, for THIRD STRIKE I was originally going to write three alternative endings and submit them and let my agent choose, but the closer I got to the end of the book, the more only one of the endings seemed to make sense, so I stuck with that.

  22. Reine (Marie-Reine)

    Hi Zoë, I used to read short stories when I was a kid. I loved the ones with a twist, a real surprise at the end. Now I love a good story where I can engage with the characters and setting. A huge twist at the end only leaves me feeling cheated, as if I'd not understood the story at all. I enjoy plot twists and turns, but not getting torqued by a big wind-up twist at the end that only leaves me feeling screwed.

  23. Debbie

    Thanks for the warm wishes. Toni please pass along birthdeay wishes to Carl. Zoë, Happy belated anniversary-we set off fireworks here too, but a few days early. No point in waiting 'till the last moment! Please set off some fireworks for my daughters b-day next week (you'll know when)!

  24. Reine (Marie-Reine)

    Hi JT
    Hi Toni.
    Hi Zoë.

    Now that I've said my bit about twist endings, that Walmart flash fiction sounds really like a lot of fun!

    Little confession: This is the first I'd heard of flash fiction… hiding under a paper sack right now.

    Debbie! Happy Anniversary!

  25. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    "If I'd had more time I would've written you a shorter story."

    I love short stories, Zoe. I can't wait until I have the time to write some.

  26. Alafair Burke

    Zoe, Ditto on the New Yorker stuff. Huh? I like short stories to have a beginning, middle, and end and to tell a whole, coherent story. Added bonus if the character is someone I continue to think about long after the story ends.

  27. Gar Haywood


    A great short story should offer everything you love — character, setting, story — plus a good twist at the end. The only reason a twist ending should leave you feeling "cheated" is if it wasn't adequately set up beforehand. A "twist" ending that comes out of nowhere, unsupported by anything that has come before, IS a cheat, and the reader has a right to feel taken advantage of. But a good twist ending is one that makes perfect sense in light of everything preceding it, and shouldn't be a turn-off for anyone.

  28. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine

    I think a BIG twist at the end is a little bit like a completely unbelievable opening for a book (or a short story, for that matter), where you know the final explanation for what's going on can never quite live up to the opening. It feels a bit like cheating, somehow…

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Debbie – I'm guessing Halloween? We're just coming up on our big fireworks time of year in the UK – November 5th, to celebrate Guy Fawkes' night. And if you're a conspiracy theorist, that one's a doozy.

  30. Zoë Sharp

    Reine – no hiding under paper sacks required. I've only come across flash fiction fairly recently, and I've never tried to write any. Short stories are getting shorter all the time, though – not just 500 words, but 50, or even just six, like the famous Hemingway one:

    'For sale
    Baby's shoes
    Never worn'

  31. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    If you're anything like me, you'll never have the time to write a short story just for the hell of it – it has to be forced on you.

    And I like the quote. It reminds me of 'I'm writing this letter slowly as I know you can't read very fast…'

  32. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    "Huh? I like short stories to have a beginning, middle, and end and to tell a whole, coherent story."

    Absolutely with you there. I sometimes think there's a lot of 'emperor's new clothes' about this business – the more incomprehensible something is, the cleverer it must be, mustn't it…?

  33. Spencer Seidel

    After thinking about this post a bit today, I realized that I own a collection of Joe Hill short stories named 20th Century Ghosts. The first of those, Best New Horror, touches on the topic of twist endings as part of the story. In it, a story is published in a literary journal and offends everyone because it has a twist ending. Great commentary on the whole I-guess-since-it-has-a-plot-it-must-not-be-literature thing.

  34. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Spencer

    I didn't realise that if a short story had a twist ending, that precluded it from being considered 'literary'.

    That sounds perilously close to 'if something's enjoyable, it can't be good for you…' doesn't it?

    Who makes up these rules anyway?

  35. Reine (Marie-Reine)

    Gar – Zoë… thank you. Brilliant comments here today. I feel like a total beginner. Oh… I am.

  36. Debbie

    Zoe, no fireworks for Halloween. You guessed with Guy Fawkes' gunpowder treason. I read Churchill's A History Of the English Speaking Peoples and he covered that one well I thought. V for Vendetta, of course is a lot more fun though and less taxing on brain cells me thinks.

  37. Doug Riddle

    Love short stories, and have been reading a ton of them as of late. I agree with Gar about having to know the ending before starting. I think writing a short story needs a mental roadmap, as opposed to a novel that can start with a general direction.

    A great short story writer to check out is Scott Wolven. He has a colleciton called Control Burn and is supposed to be releasing a novel soon. Several of his stories have made The Best American Mystery Stories, and many others are online. Check out his short "8 Ball" at Mississippi Review.

  38. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Doug

    I agree with Gar – but I also tend to need a mental roadmap for a novel as well, and I definitely need to know exactly the right point to dive in. Setting off with a general direction and no clear idea of where I'm going has never been my particular style, although I know it works brilliantly for others.

    Thanks for the tip on Scott Wolven, by the way!

  39. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Used to read short stories – I mean a LONG time ago – but almost always horror: King, DuMaurier, those collected Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Saki.

    Writing them – takes almost as much time as a first draft screenplay. Seems a crazy way of spending time, if you need to make a living. And I just think long. Even the one I wrote that won the Thriller Award, I've expanded into a novel. I guess short is just not my form.

  40. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    I'm fascinated by the differences between writing prose and a screenplay, as I've never given the latter a go, although because the short I did that was filmed – 'Tell Me' was nearly all dialogue between two characters, I guess that was easier to do than something that's more narrative based.

    But how wonderful that you had two bites at an idea, with your award-winning short, and then to turn it into a novel as well. Brilliant.

  41. pari noskin taichert

    Sorry to be so late to the conversation; I spent the last two days substitute teaching in a middle school . . .

    I've been writing short stories lately. I'm still not convinced I've got the hang of them, but they're interesting exercises in precision and intention.

  42. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Sorry to be even later replying – my ISP decided to completely lock me out yesterday afternoon. Wow, doesn't THAT make you feel isolated?

    I'm still not convinced I've got the hang of this writing business at all, so I know the feeling…

Comments are closed.