Whatever you are writing for this competition, make sure your piece has honourable intentions. By this I mean, make sure your entry has a point, a story, something to say. A competent use of grammar, a way with words, a quirky style is a good start, but it isn’t enough. You need to leave the judges with an impression that is hard to shake. You need to give your piece of writing a life that will go on after they have finished reading.
Here’s a few things to think about when starting out or redrafting.
A key device in script writing is to have a ‘set up’ and a ‘pay off’. This also works in short stories or flash. The famous Chekhov gun quote is good to remember. If you mention that there is a gun over the mantle at the beginning of a story, then the gun must be fired at some point before the end – otherwise there is no point telling us it is there. There’s no time to waste words.
At the beginning of a story, you need to set up a problem that the character must overcome. By the end, there must be some resolution, neat or otherwise. And in between there must be conflict and complications – either between characters, with outside events, or with themselves.
Right from the beginning you need to invite the reader in. Get the reader to trust you. Make them want to hold your hand and go on the journey with you. Don’t give them a reason to let go. So start in the right place – don’t write yourself in – there is no time or space for this. Start slap-bang in the middle of something. Intrigue us from the outset.
Paul McVeigh says it’s helpful to ask yourself why your story/poem is happening now? What has just happened or is just about to happen that has triggered this situation, this chain of events, these feelings. Why not yesterday or tomorrow? Why today?
Now, think very clearly about what it is you want to say. What message do you want to convey to your reader? A narrative is crucial to a short story; something has to happen – a set up, obstacles flung in the path of the narrator/character, the pay off.
In a flash piece, something also has to happen but not necessarily in the same way as in a short story – a change or the suggestion of a change can be enough. It has to be more than a description or an anecdote. Always think, what am I trying to do here?
In a poem, the reader must be left with something at the end that they didn’t have at the beginning – a shift of some kind, or maybe a new way of engaging with an over-familiar world. Poetry, with its concentration of language and metaphor, has the power to change the way we view ourselves and the world around us. Poems should leave an impression like a piece of music.
Which brings me to emotion. A piece of writing must connect to the reader in order for it to be memorable. If a judge is reading hundreds of stories and poems, they will be more likely to put your submission through if it has emotional resonance. If your writing has an emotional impact on a reader, if it connects with them on some level, then this will put you ahead of the game. Think about what it is your character needs or desires. What do they yearn for? What stops them getting this? What enables them to be satisfied? Was it what they expected? Or were they surprised? How do you want the language to affect the reader? What impression do you want to make? How do you want the reader to feel?
So to the pay-off. In the words of Flannery O’Connor (or was it Aristotle?), is your ending an ‘inevitable surprise’? Do you say to yourself, ‘Ah! Of course this was going to happen?’ Does the ending make you want to go back to the beginning and reread in order to seek out the set-up. If you have done this with your writing, then you can say to your reader, ‘I’ve delivered my promise. See, I got you there.’ You might have to go back and make sure your set-up is good enough so that the payoff works but that’s what redrafting and editing is all about.
And don’t forget to use the title to add surprise – this is true for all writing. A good title can do so much more than just be a title. It can help make sense of a piece, or it can add another layer of subtext. This is especially true of flash or poetry where every word counts.
Make sure your ending doesn’t let you down. Don’t ever be predictable or boring. Surprise the judge with a story or a poem that only you could have written.
In my last blog on landscape I talked about Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘In the time of ‘the breaking of nations’. If this was just a poem about a man ploughing a field while a young couple walk by, it would be a pretty piece of writing but that’s about it. What makes this poem stand the test of time is that it is hinting at events happening off stage, on the battlefields of France in the first world war. The contrast between the savagery of war and the rural idyll is powerful and emotional. And of course, this is also subtext, which I wrote about in my first blog.
Check your intentions are honourable and that you see them through to the end.
Sophie Duffy is this year’s Hysteria Writer in Residence. You can find out more about her in the interview she did with us in April.