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The Art of the Short Story

The Art of the Short Story

My publisher approached me recently with a request to write a compendium of short stories, even suggesting that their website, Fidus Books, might host a monthly short story magazine. I think it is a great idea. Many modern authors are writing short stories to keep fans occupied between annual bestsellers, Lee child is an example.

When I started writing in 1985, I wrote only short stories some of which were for publications that had punitive word limits. I would struggle to edit the stories to 600 words (for two weekly magazines) whilst still telling the story, for example from 1985:

“Off Beat”

John strode purposefully along the darkened High Street, turning the corner into Mill Lane and into the glare of the sodium street lamp. “If only I had my Oyster card, I wouldn’t have needed to walk through this neighbourhood.” he thought to himself.

His worn tan overcoat was unbuttoned and revealed the uniform of a police constable beneath. As if to confirm this fact a silver badged helmet was stuck tightly in the crook of his arm. “Excuse me Young man.”John stopped dead in his tracks. This was not the sort of area to hang around on a dark night, especially in police uniform.

“Hello there, Cooieee.” An aged female voice interrupted his thoughts.

“Well, she looks harmless enough.” he thought as he watched the old lady cross the deserted road. “Can I help you, Madam?” His tone was polite but superior. You had to be like that in his job.
“I can see that you are off duty young man,” she said “but we have just found this wallet near the bus stop – haven’t we, Alice?”

Alice, who had remained on the other side of the road in case the bus came, smiled and nodded in agreement even though she could not possibly have heard the question.

“There’s over three hundred pounds in it luv,” the old lady continued, “not that we were being nosy, you understand doesn’t do in these parts, being nosy.” John felt he had to stop the barrage of chatter being directed at him.

“Yes, Madam, how exactly can I help you?” he asked quickly. She thrust the Wallet into John’s reluctant hands and he examined it carefully. There was a driver’s licence, two credit cards, a few sundry bits of paper and a sheaf of twenty pound notes, pushing into insignificance the single ten pound note that preceded them.

The old lady interrupted his concentration again.

“It belongs to a Mr. Amos of Raintree Drive. It says so, there on the driving licence” She said pointing. But our bus is due soon, you see, and we don’t know our way around here, so we thought perhaps you could deliver it for us.”
The old lady looked trustingly up into his face and John smiled. “Of course I will. Just you make sure you catch your bus. Good night.” The old lady hurried across the road to meet the oncoming number nine bus. John watched as it pulled away and waved to the old lady who returned the gesture. Her friend Alice just smiled and nodded.

John looked at his watch and decided that he had time to deliver the wallet on his way without being too late and so he set off in the direction of Raintree Drive. The address inside the wallet suggested a large, imposing Georgian style house with a long tarmac driveway on which, he supposed, a Porsche or a BMW might stand. He wasn’t disappointed. He walked up to the front door and rang the bell. There was no reply. As the house was in total darkness he decided to drop the wallet through the letter box. Before doing so, he opened the wallet and checked the address and the contents once more.

The deed done, he went on his way and after ten minutes brisk walking he found himself standing outside a brightly illuminated house, waiting for a reply to his knock. A shadow darkened the half glazed door, and it clicked open to reveal a man wearing an eye patch and a bandanna. The jovial fellow beckoned John inside taking his overcoat. John spoke quietly, almost conspiratorially. The smiling creditor looked on in disbelief as John took a solitary ten pound note from front of the large roll of Twenty pound notes in his hand and repaid his debt.

“Good heavens, John. There must be over three hundred quid there.”

John pushed the wad of twenty pound notes back into his pocket and his face cracked into a broad grin as he said. “Yes I must admit I had a stroke of luck today.”

“Come and meet the others” said Terry, and led John into a noisy lounge crowded with nuns, French tarts, and others dressed in equally bizarre attire. “Look, everyone,” Terry shouted. “John’s come dressed as a Policeman.”

The biggest short story challenge I faced was to write a thriller in fifty words for a radio programme. My effort was:

‘Instant Justice

Ignoring the dying Chinese shopkeeper, Myron raced through the exit at speed dropping the mask and gun into the moneybag. Commuters ignored him, too concerned about keeping warm. The tall robber hit the icy pavement and slid uncontrollably into the road. The fast moving van braked too late.’

In literary circles I believe that the short story is much underrated, I could name long movies and entire series of TV programmes that were based on a single short story. There are also many beloved literary characters who only ever appeared either in a single short story or in numerous short stories.

I hope that it would be fair to say that short stories demand a lot from the author but not toomuch from the reader, which is probably the way it should be. I’m thinking of calling my short story compilation “Six Pairs of Shorts”, let me know what you think at jjacksonbentley@london.com.

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