Wednesday 18 August 2021

Writing Short Stories: Part 2 - guest post by Art Taylor


Today, Art Taylor resumes his discussion of the craft of writing short stories (and mentions one of my own favourite authors of short stories, the brilliant William Trevor) :

'In Part I of this essay, I suggested some of the benefits of writing long first drafts of short stories to improve the quality of the final, shorter ones. But should writers do this?

As I tell students in my workshops at George Mason University, the strongest characters don’t exist solely in a scene or a moment, stepping off into nothingness; instead, the reader should feel that their lives extend well before the first line of the story, well after the final one (if they’re lucky!), and beyond the borders of any single page.

There are several technical ways to accomplish these gestures toward the larger world. A stray detail in a line of dialogue, a brief ramble through memories in a passage of interiority, even a bit of backstory directly presented in a line of exposition (that last in moderation)—these moves allow you to take elements which might have been part of a longer manuscript and sneak them around the edges of a streamlined revision. In his terrific craft book Thrill Me, Benjamin Percy suggests slipping a small reference to backstory into the predicate of a sentence—an exercise I now assign in class.  

Admittedly, writing a full novel to earn the raw material for a short story isn’t efficient. Writers could also sketch out notes about a character’s history, their dreams, their fears, etc. to pluck from as needed for the story itself. Another tactic: Sketch a chronological list of every event that has some impact on the story, then start the storytelling itself near the end of that chronology, trying to infuse the plot with the weight of the larger history.

One of my own favorite short story writers, William Trevor, used the word “distillation” to describe the short story—a word that’s stuck, in terms of both purification and extraction. Taking something that’s fuller and condensing it and reducing it until what you’ve got is exactly what you need, no more, no less, and in its richest form.

High potency, small doses. That’s something to aim for, however you might get there.'

Art Taylor is the author of The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense (Crippen & Landru, 2020). His fiction has won the Edgar Award and the Anthony Award, as well as multiple Agatha, Derringer, and Macavity Awards. He’s a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Find out more about his work at




Michael Lydon said...

Martin, an interesting pair of articles; thank you to Mr Taylor. The short story is a strange form, far more flexible than the novel and, occasionally, more intense than poetry. Mr Taylor just confirms that like long fiction and poetry, short stories are the product of hard work, not just thrown off in an idle hour.

I think my favourite short story (present company excepted) is by Saki, “Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped”. A lesser writer would have turned the idea into a trilogy of novels.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Michael. I don't know that story, though I've read some Saki, e.g. Sredni Vashtar, and I'll seek that one out.