Writing a good short story and writing one that stands out aren’t necessarily the same thing. The former is simply a matter of quality, whereas the latter requires something just a little bit more.
So how can an aspiring short fiction author ensure that theirs is the story that gets picked up? What will draw attention and make their work seem unique and novel?
The secret lies in bravery.
Like most art forms, writing is subject to three limits: what you are capable of expressing to the audience, what you are willing to express to the audience, and how you are willing to express it.
Experimenting with these limits is what will lead you to writing unique fiction that stands out to readers, and it all begins with shedding one unhelpful belief…
1. The bravery to be original
Expressed in myriad forms by writers through time, the accepted truth that ‘every story has already been told’ can be inspiring, depressing, even irritating. It’s something many authors struggle with, accept, then struggle with all over again, but most settle on the realization that the statement is inescapably true so long as you add a simple caveat: ‘but not really’.
Yes every story has been told, but only if you’re happy to boil them down to their base elements. Whether new narratives are possible or not is, in the end, irrelevant because every author is capable of bringing a brand new context to their work which has never been seen before. This context is a combination of their age, gender, race, outlook, experiences, religion, family life, even the books they themselves have read. Everything that makes a person unique goes into forming the context of their storytelling, and it’s in your own personal context that you’ll find the ability to produce new narratives.
Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.
– Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
In The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter turns her hand to rewriting fairy stories, employing her unique outlook to make them new. So adept is she at this that the second and third stories in the collection, ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’ and ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, are both rewrites of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast yet tonally they are entirely different stories. One of the many differences between the two stories is the characterization of the titular beast. In the former he is ultimately relatable, in the latter a more mystical, surreal creature.
‘I’m dying, Beauty,’ he said in a cracked whisper of his former purr. ‘Since you left me, I have been sick. I could not go hunting, I found I had not the stomach to kill the gentle beasts, I could not eat. I am sick and I must die; but I shall die happy because you have come to say good-bye to me.’
She flung herself upon him, so that the iron bedstead groaned, and covered his poor paws with her kisses.
– Angela Carter, The Courtship of Mr Lyon from The Bloody Chamber
There is a crude clumsiness about his outlines, that are on the ungainly, giant side; and he has an odd air of self-imposed restraint, as if fighting a battle with himself to remain upright when he would far rather drop down on all fours… only from a distance would you think The Beast not much different from any other man, although he wears a mask with a man’s face painted most beautifully on it. Oh, yes, a beautiful face; but one with too much formal symmetry of feature to be entirely human: one profile of his mask is the mirror image of the other, too perfect, uncanny.
– Angela Carter, ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ from The Bloody Chamber
In these short stories, Carter makes a mockery of the idea that every story has been told, retelling them as many times as she pleases and finding something new and exciting to say each time.
To write an awesome short story, you need to be offering something new. As Angela Carter shows this doesn’t mean a new story, it means a new presentation; an experience the reader hasn’t had before. If you can clearly and boldly state what you are doing that’s original then you’re onto a winner. If not it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your story, but it does mean it will be less visible amongst the competition.
2. The bravery to experiment
The bravery to experiment is relevant to all three limitations of writing. Here you need to push the boundaries of what you want to write, how you want to write it, and what you’re capable of writing. In Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot, Neil Gaiman presents a selection of fictional tarot cards, each of which is characterized by a captured moment.
1. The Magician
They asked St Germain’s manservant if his master was truly a thousand years old, as it was rumored he had claimed.
‘How would I know?’ the man replied. ‘I have only been in the master’s employ for three hundred years.’
– Neil Gaiman, ‘Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot’ from Smoke and Mirrors
This short list has no introduction, no obvious through-plot, and only the title to add a unifying context. The short story is a description of fifteen non-sequential cards, themselves artifacts of a whole only alluded to in the title. There’s very little standing between this short story and poetry, especially if you compare it to Don Paterson’s poem The Scale of Intensity.
And yet the story is brilliant. Gaiman’s bravery in transgressing usual form and presentation result in something wholly unique and completely fascinating. Even those who don’t enjoy it would have to admit that it is noteworthy.
Pushing your boundaries can feel dangerous, and as with any creative process you’ll likely churn out more rubbish than gold, but it’s a fantastic way to stand out from the competition.
3. The bravery to trust your reader
This is a huge ask from an author, and a step the majority will never take. Trusting your reader means allowing them to do some of the work. It means resisting the urge to explain yourself, to hold their hand through the reading experience. It frequently enhances quality and will make your work stand out first and foremost because so few authors dare do it.
In Rape Fantasies, Margaret Atwood embraces a wildly taboo topic. The narrator sits around with ‘friends’, playing cards and discussing their personal fantasies. The result is a darkly humorous story with biting insight into personal psychology and societal attitudes. This very short story has one, or perhaps two, more layers than the reader will discover on their first reading, but Atwood trusts her reader not just to dig deeper, but also to explore a subject that many will point blank refuse to even broach.
“All right, let me tell you one,” I said. “I’m walking down this dark street at night and this fellow comes up and grabs my arm. Now it so happens that I have a plastic lemon in my purse, you know how it always says you should carry a plastic lemon in your purse? I don’t really do it, I tried it once but the darn thing leaked all over my checkbook, but in this fantasy I have one, and I say to him, ‘You’re intending to rape me, right?’ and he nods, so I open my purse to get the plastic lemon, and I can’t get the top off. So I hand it to him and he’s very obliging, he twists the top off and hands it back to me, and I squirt him in the eye.”
I hope you don’t think that’s too vicious. Come to think of it, it is a bit mean, especially when he was so polite and all.
– Margaret Atwood, ‘Rape Fantasies’ from Dancing Girls and Other Stories
Like it or not, writing is always, to some extent, an exercise in ego. The writer wants to be understood, and it’s easy to ensure that this is the case. But by leaving out an explanation, cutting the hand holding, you allow the reader their own place in the story.
If you can manage this your work will glow. Many great authors have become household names just by creating the illusion that they trust their readers; doing so is a rare practice.
Bravery in action
Of course none of these types of bravery are mutually exclusive. In Fifteen Painted Cards, Gaiman tells an original story in an experimental format, trusting his readers to form their own connections between the cards and discover the overarching themes (and also just to engage with the form).
Likewise Carter presents The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride one after the other, early in her anthology, trusting the reader to see the worth in the stories both originally and as a pair, even before they’ve been reassured by the quality elsewhere.
There’s a reason these things require bravery; they’re difficult, they’re frequently risky, and it’s not always clear where they’ll lead you, but if you want your short fiction to stand out from the competition they’re the surest path there is.
For more on making your work the best it can be, check out How to decide if your plot points are too weak (and how to fix them), or for more on getting your work to its intended audience try Clever book pricing tactics that drive sales.
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