Short story writing workshops

To help hone your short story skills, we have a series of three workshops created by short story writing and fiction tutor Vanessa Gebbie.

Workshop three

What gives a story ‘legs’?

If there was a single answer to this, I’d have bottled it long ago, be selling it in small quantities, and be a squillionnaire. Writing any form of fiction is not a precise science. The readers, judges and editors who choose our work bring their own likes and dislikes, their own experience and values to the table, as much as their own appreciation of craft. Does this mean decisions are entirely arbitrary? Does it mean we can’t do anything to maximise our chances of reaching the long and short lists? Or of rising to the top? No it doesn’t. We can indeed. The previous workshop (see below) in this series has hopefully helped to sharpen your editing tools, given you some pointers to polish your story until it is as sharp as it can be.

What follows is based on my own preferences as a reader – both reading for pleasure, and for competitions. If I can tick all these boxes, that story has the elusive ‘something’ that give a story ‘legs’.

This is where trusted readers are invaluable for aspiring entrants. Ask them to read for specifics, to give you valuable relevant comment. Ask them to read closely, and comment on the following, to guide your final edits:

  • Pace. The momentum of a story really matters. The journey through the story should not drop to a plod – if it does, I will lose interest. Slow, yes. Reflective, yes. Gentle, yes. All these can bring their own beauty, their own energy, to the prose. But plod, no. Ask your readers to note where their attention begins to waver. And where it picks up again.
  • Music. In all senses. Is the voice a strong, consistent, identifiable one? Is the prose pleasant to read? That does not mean ‘flowery’, or ‘overblown’, or ‘writerly’ – it just means does it flow? Does the vocabulary you have chosen flow past easily in the telling of the story, or does it draw attention to itself and hold the reader up? But music also, in the sense of shades of sound, of colour. Does the work come across as a ‘one-note story’? Or is it rich, layered, interesting – even with the odd discord. In a dark story, are there points of light? In a sad story, are there points of humour?
  • Humour! Don’t forget the power of humour. I have read for many competitions, and I know many others who have too – I can tell you, the vast majority of stories entered will be on the dark side. How refreshing to pick up the next entry, and find a little well-placed lightness!
  • Are the characters layered? Are they a vital mix of positive and negative, just like you and me – or are they cyphers; cutouts, puppets moving about as you jerk their strings?
  • Is it sufficiently different? Is there an element of surprise and/or risk? Is the story predictable – or does it, now and again, make you sit up and take notice? Are you taking a few risks? Isn’t it more fun, more interesting, to read a risky story than a safe, predictable one?
  • Was there, in the first carefree drafts, an element of something unexplainable, surreal, echoing, thought-provoking? And did you take it out because you thought others (readers, judges, perhaps) would not ‘like’ it? My advice would be: put it back in. Be brave.


Vanessa Gebbie is a novelist (Bloomsbury), short fiction writer (Salt), poet (Pighog) and freelance writing teacher. She has won awards for both poetry and prose. Her latest collection is Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures (illustrated micros, Liquorice Fish Books) and forthcoming are further collections of poetry, short stories and flash.

To 2,200 words and beyond – editing short stories

I have so often read competition entries that seemed great for the first page or three, then became unwieldy. Some of these were suspiciously close to the maximum word-count, as if the writer stopped revising when they reached the ‘right’ number. Sadly, that approach did the stories few favours.

Writer Valerie O’Riordan won the 2010 Bristol Short Story Prize (maximum word count 3,000) with the tiny ‘Mum’s the Word’, only 367 words long. Her story needed to be that length. Any more and it would have spoiled a perfect little piece.

Here are some steps I follow when editing – see if they work for you? But first, forget the word count. You are helping the story be as good as it can be with no preconceived length, or shape. You are sharpening, polishing, cutting some, adding little bits – not taking away what makes your story sing. It’s a question of balance. A good short story will find its own length.

  1. Put the story away. Then lock up your ego, and seek trusted feedback

Time really is the writer’s best friend. Get on with something else. Shift your emotional energy to another project so you can revise with a cool head. Seek feedback from trusted readers who understand your intentions, not just friends who will tell you it’s all lovely. Collate all their comments and if you can, put it away again.

  1. If your readers have flagged plot glitches, I suggest you deal with those first, so the whole hangs together logically and reveals the narrative stages as you planned.
  1. Check the opening paragraphs

Does the story start well? Rewrite it anyway to make sure. Experiment. Try third person. First person. Play with tenses. Which feels best? It is worth spending time getting the opening right, not just to give readers a good impression, but to help you. Once the voice has settled, once your characters stir into life and those first sentences sing, they become signposts to help you smooth or revise the rest.

  1. Back story

Like salt, use sparingly.

  1. Check for surprise

What surprised you as you wrote this story? Highlight phrases, actions, scenes, dialogue snippets that made you sit up a little straighter, which you enjoyed creating. If they surprised you, odds are they will convey excitement to the reader – don’t delete!

6. and 7. Clean the prose and check the layout.

Check for modifiers, for over-used vocabulary, for repetitions. Are you telling instead of showing? Read each part out loud as you revise. Does it sound/feel ‘choppy’ in places? Check for sentence length. If you have a paragraph full of sentences that are all more or less the same construct, and length, it will not read well. Vary them. Re-read… see the difference? Are you using white space effectively? Does your story look inviting on the page, or is it a series of impenetrable blocks of print? Could it need more dialogue to break up exposition? Make the most of white space to highlight shifts in tension, setting, emotional temperature.

  1. Read the whole thing out loud.

You are checking for sound and flow as well as trying to see the story from the reader’s viewpoint. Everywhere you stumble over a word, or transpose another instinctively – mark the text. Note where it still feels thin, or overwritten. If new words flow in place of others, great. Read it out loud again, and again, tweaking words until it feels ready to go.

Mslexia’s competition judges often complain about regretfully passing over some really well-written entries because they were ‘obviously’ just excerpts from a longer piece of fiction. This workshop is designed to help you recycle a novel chapter into a satisfying stand-alone short story.

So – you have the draft of a novel. You have a community of characters you know well and enjoy working with, fascinating settings, a long and complex fiction unfolding in a decent voice. You have the main event sequence that tells the main tale, and a plethora of sub plots to enrich. Then a lucrative short story competition comes along and you decide to try to turn a chapter, or excerpt, into a stand-alone piece of short fiction. But how? And which chapter?

Let’s go back to first principles, and ask what all short stories have in common. Perhaps the most important thing in this context is a clear emotional journey of a main character. Somewhere on that journey will be a pivot, an event which causes the shift from one emotion to another. It does not have to be a momentous event; sometimes a small psychological shift can appear huge in the context of a short story.

Returning to your novel, here are some suggested steps.

  1. Identify the best chapter to work on

Choose a chapter that contains a clearly defined shift in emotional state for one of the characters. In this case, it does not have to be the main character of the novel. Your new story might bring one of your minor characters into the fore and give them a deeper lease of life. (Indeed, this exercise might bring benefits for the novel itself.)

  1. ‘Clean’ the chapter

Remove all extraneous material, i.e. material necessary for the novel, but not this particular story. Start with the characters. Your novel has room for a much bigger cast of actors than your emerging story, so ask each character whether they belong in this story? Then remove any sub plots that have nothing to do with your story. They will only confuse the reader and send them off down unresolvable side alleys. Cut out backstory from the novel too – it probably won’t be needed.

  1. Add back in…

Assuming you’ve chosen a chapter part-way through your novel, you may need to add important information on setting, for example, which might need to be borrowed from the start of the novel to create a new opening. You may also want to add information about the characters in your new story. But be judicious – how much is really needed?

  1. Rewrite

Rewrite your story from scratch. Inhabit your setting as if it is fresh, and use your descriptive skills to bring it to life in as few words as possible. Meet the characters anew; let the reader hear them speak and see them interact. Show the issue confronting your (new?) main character and let them react in their own way, which may well be different to the way the novel chapter unfolded.

  1. Apply a checklist

This is the list I use to check whether all the elements are working well together, but obviously you can develop your own list.

  • Title: Does it intrigue the reader and add something to the story?
  • Opening: Does it give the reader a character to root for? Does it set the story in its time and place? Does it hint at the sort of story it will be, hint at what might be at stake for the character?
  • Characters: Does the reader have enough information to ‘see’ them?
  • Voice: Does the narrative come across in a confident, consistent voice?
  • Dialogue: Do the characters speak as themselves? Are their individual voices differentiated?
  • Plot: Is the sequence of events clear and logical? Are there any holes that need to be filled?
  • Language: Is the vocabulary appropriate? Is every word carefully chosen? Have any clichés crept in? Are there any places where the prose might alienate the reader by being too ‘writerly’ or ‘clever’?
  • Ending: Particularly important for what was originally a novel extract – does it come to a satisfying conclusion?
'Loving the little ms. Great creative pick-me-up between issues, packed with inspiration'
Rebecca Jones