ADJUDICATING SHORT STORIES
I’ve just done an adjudication of a long list of 16 short stories under a competition organised by Multi-Story (see http://www.multi-story.co.uk/). The results will be published at the end of the month on that site first, and I shall follow up with a blog which will contain the full reviews of all 16 pieces.
I have no general theory about writing short stories, which isn’t a form of which I have much recent experience, and in any case rules of writing are only more or less true and apply only to some but rarely all cases. It surprised me therefore that, when it came to final choices, I rejected some well written pieces on the ground that I did not feel they fully exploited the form. My reaction is best explained by describing what I think they were (if not short stories).
One piece was a brilliant specimen of comic dialogue: a genuinely funny idea that was extremely well executed and had a sting in the tail. I thought it would work wonderfully as a radio or review sketch, and that was my ultimate criticism: that it was only masquerading as a short story. Another piece – also well done – was more narrative in style but was at its core only a set-up for a joke.
I was very attracted to a humorous piece of social comedy that displayed the interactions of a small group of people with good dialogue and characterisation. In the end I felt it was a vignette rather than a story, i.e. it seemed too static and did not reveal its point. While it may not me mandatory, short stories often work by having a sting in the tail. It can be surprising, funny, truthful or all three. Not to have a sting in the tail is a risk.
Two of the stories took a considerable risk by founding themselves on a whimsical conceit, by inviting us to read the human condition into something non-human – an allegory, if you will. I’d caution strongly against attempting this because it adds to the writer’s problems the possibility that the reader won’t consider the allegory apposite or especially revealing or will regard it as a contrivance. One of the stories succeeded moderately well but went awry in misdescribing a key response in a way that would have been obvious if the situation had been seen with purely human actors. The other story failed because it raised issues too complex to discuss and resolve intelligently within a short story and the allegory was too contrived.
Writers want to show themselves to their best advantage and there’s a temptation to make the style overwrought. One writer had an excellent facility for vivid figurative language but fell into the vice of using it excessively, a common fault. However this tic had an interesting side effect. The story was told in the first person in which the language itself reveals the narrator’s character, and in this instance there was a contradiction between the two elements. A banal character finds himself thinking in high flown terms. Another writer couldn’t see a noun without giving it a retinue of adjectives.
Managing multiple time-frames is in any case difficult and, in the context of a short story, can be confusing. Several entries struggled with this. One was particularly affected because at heart the story arc was too ambitious, more suited to a novel.
Truthfulness is an elusive quality, but I suspect it may be more important in a short story than a novel because the brevity of the form makes its presence or absence more immediately obvious. One writer described a male fantasy, but I think he thought he was describing something else, and the result was a story that seemed to me false at its heart, though competently written. One effect of his error was a lack of internal harmony. Dialogue that should have been natural became stagey because the character had a mythic dimension, and the lesson which the Narrator claimed to have learned from his experience was at complete variance with his observed character. In contrast one of the winners came up with an excellent metaphor to describe the Narrator’s take on the world, and I thought he/she combined originality with truthfulness with using the trope to exploit the short story form to best advantage.