Sunday 17 December 2017

Cathy Sweeney: Composition - how to shape your story

The secrets to shaping your Short Story

Master of the short story: Kevin Barry. His new collection of short stories ‘Dark Lies the Island: Stories’ was published last September to critical acclaim
Master of the short story: Kevin Barry. His new collection of short stories ‘Dark Lies the Island: Stories’ was published last September to critical acclaim

Cathy Sweeney

Shape your story around one or two characters: remember to describe the characters but, more importantly, show them (body language, facial expression, gesture and action).


Shape your story around one or two characters: remember to describe the characters but, more importantly, show them (body language, facial expression, gesture and action).

Bring your setting alive through the use of the senses: visual, aural, tactile, olfactory, gustatory imagery. The setting creates the atmosphere of the story, so give it due consideration. Plot, in an LC short story, needs to be simple to work.

Include an exchange of dialogue in your story. Remember: a new line for every new speaker, and indent the speech.

You can use first, third or omniscient narrative voice. The most important thing about a short story is that it moves towards some element of change for your main character – epiphany. This can be emotional, attitudinal or circumstantial. Use pathetic fallacy in your resolution to add depth.


An Important Decision

Question/task: Write a short story in which the main character has to make an important decision.

Answer: A charcoal-coloured cloud hung low over the landscape, threatening to spill. Far above, its slatey-grey brethren hung in solidarity. The rapeseed field was a golden blur, stretching for acres, while in the distance, black spots – hedges, or wayward sheep – stood out against the mustard-coloured plant.

Occasionally, light broke through the clouds, creating wavering patterns. The chemical smell of the fresh tarmac mixed with the wetgrass perfume of the rapeseed, filling Mairead's nose and fighting towards her lungs. She imagined a gentle puff of wind ruffling the yellow flowers, the little cloud dropping, like a ripe fruit, to the earth, drenching the fields and muting pungent smell enclosing her. She breathed out.

Mairead's greying curls had swollen into a frizz over the week of sultry weather, and coils of it clung to the back of her neck. Her jacket's polyester lining felt like clammy palms dragging on her skin as her shoulders shifted inside the fabric. She was overdressed for August, but the jacket was armour. Summer clothes would be inappropriate for this occasion.

Mairead faced her sister's house. The red brick was imposing. As she locked the car and approached the house, the gravel whispered and ground its teeth under her boots. At the gate, she was already in the shadow. She hadn't been there since the christening of Ciara's youngest, who was now in school. Mairead rang the bell. She wanted to sprint back to the car before she was seen, but her legs were paralysed. It was the kind of news that could split a family if it were broken wrongly.

Mairead was the right person – David wasn't known for his tact. Simply saying it had meant "nothing" wouldn't cut it, though of course she'd bite her lip and say it if she had to. Linda deserved better from a husband, from a sister. Poor Linda. Mairead would phrase it . . . more elegantly. She just wasn't sure how.

"It's been so long! We've the place all finished, thanks be to God, just getting a bit of a patio done out the back while the weather keeps up, you know yourself."

Linda ran her left hand through her long blonde hair, gripping the counter with her right. She had lovely hair – straight and sleek, with barely a hint of grey yet. The kettle whistled, making the sisters jump.

"Do you take sugar? Can't for the life of me remember!"

"Just milk. Thanks."

As the tea cooled, Linda chattered about house prices, class sizes, holiday plans in the Seychelles if the kids could sit through the flight. Mairead barely heard her. She stared past her sister, at her reflection in the window, and pawed at her unruly mane of hair.

"Listen, Linda . . ."

This was a mistake. The words stuck to Mairead's teeth like cotton wool. Linda, stirring the tea, prattled about one of the twin's fillings, oblivious.

They were certainly comfortable here, David and Poor Linda. The house was bright inside, and the kitchen counters looked like real granite. A long-haired cat stretched on the sofa, flashing his claws before making a nest in the cushions. Linda recounted a tale of how it had once taken two hours to find him after her youngest had tried to fit him inside a handbag,

"So I suppose the cat was, well, out of the bag! A-ha-ha!"

She gripped the mug a little tighter. Her knuckles were turning white. Mairead stared down into her own drink. Hooked nose, mouth turned down at the corners into the beginnings of jowls. She swirled the mug, erasing the caricature of a middle-aged woman she barely recognised.

Linda bent her head to blow on her tea, her monologue of polite conversation run dry. Tendrils of hair fell over her eyes, casting shadows over her features. Mairead couldn't see her expression. Tucking a curl behind her ear, she cleared her throat. Linda didn't look up.

"There's something I need – you need – to know. It's David."

Linda raised her head, strands of blonde framing her face. Staring at a point above Mairead's head, she raised her left hand palm-inward and spread her fingers, the gold band catching the light. So that was where the difference lay. A piece of yellow metal.

"Yeah. I know. I don't know who she is and frankly, I don't want to. I'd appreciate it if you didn't get involved. Thank you."

They finished their tea in silence. As she walked back to the car, Mairead felt a strange disappointment, a restlessness she couldn't quite place. Goddamn, David. Beyond the house, the rapeseed had lost its colour, and silver tones reflected the moonlight seeping through the clouds. The rain had passed but the clouds were low as ever. The smell of the tarmac, mingling with the scent of rapeseed, made Mairead choke.

This is an engaging short story. The student writes a narrative based on the title – a character making an important decision – and so fulfils the requirements of the task.

Characterisation is achieved through showing, not telling, and the setting is created through interesting images. Dialogue is used well to show character and progress the plot, while pathetic fallacy concludes the short story.

Irish Independent Supplement

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