Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story ...

One thing I took away from reading Jennifer Webb’s book ‘Teach Like A Writer’ was the idea of expertise.  We spend a lot of time discussing our expertise with regard to the literary texts we teach and we share our readings, interpretations and teaching ideas within the wider community.   The teaching of writing, however, is spoken about less and discussion surrounding our expertise of the different forms, not as prominent.  As a result of reading Jennifer’s book, I have questioned my own expertise in the teaching of writing, especially specific forms of writing.

One form we teach here is imaginative writing – descriptive or narrative – as part of the IGCSE course.  It forms part of pupils’ coursework.  And whilst I say I teach this, I’m never convinced I teach it well and this is because I quite clearly lack the expertise when it comes to the form of writing.  After reading the opening chapter of Jennifer’s book and speaking with my good friend, Louisa Enstone, who is an absolute creative force, I found myself ordering a number of books that explore the art of the short story to learn more.  The first of these to arrive was a book entitled ‘Short Circuit: A Guide to the Art of the Short Story, which is a collation of short essays from various short story authors.

Here are some of my main takeaways:

  1. Good writing takes time: the writing of a short story is something that requires a long gestation period. The writers in this book talk about jotting down ideas, letting them ferment, leaving them to develop, coming back to them, leaving them again, writing, re-writing and then editing.  Many of the authors in this book talk of a short story taking 18 months to write.  The expectation of pupils at GCSE then to produce a narrative in 45 minutes is somewhat unrealistic.
  2. Ideas gathering: writers spend a long time gathering ideas and a lot of these ideas take years to come into full fruition. They tend to grab ideas from a variety of different places: lists (place names, bus stops), interesting phrases, titles of encyclopaedia entries, different definitions of the same word, playing with form, listening to conversations, newspaper reports.  Carrying a notepad and pen is key for a writer – you never know when you might come across a great idea.  Many encourage research – for historical accuracy, for example, but warn that this research should not drive the plot and interweaving details to create authentic settings and experiences is far more effective.
  3. Character drives a short story not plot: many writers talk about not knowing what the plot of their story is and instead rely upon the creation of authentic characters who will lead them in a particular direction. It is argued that a short story is the unfolding of a character and that this character speaks to our wider human experience with a focus on a patch of time or smaller patches of time.  The short story is a form in which light in shone on to small human truths.  Characterisation can be developed in many different ways – the classic show not tell, the physical landscape being a reflection of the mental landscape of the character, dialogue as an adjunct of characterization not plot and the idea of characters having a single physical characteristic – one key detail to distinguish them from other key characters (not that there should be many characters in a short story).  Clare Wigfall, in her chapter, introduces the idea of interviewing your character using a set of interview questions which Webb has used within her work.
  4. Short stories are about accuracy: the brevity of the form means you have to make everything count. Every word, every sentence should have a function and if they don’t, they need to be cut. Many of the writers encourage simply writing at first and then using the editing process to strip back.  Most writers advocate reading your work aloud during the writing process to kill of the showy bits.  The editing / re-drafting process is key in ensuring lengthy descriptions become more economical.  Questioning the value of each and every word, stripping the language back, moderating the use of adjectives, adverbs and abstract nouns, abandoning qualifiers and avoiding clichés are all suggested.  Marek in his chapter argues that there should not be a single word that could be taken away. It is argued that writers have to show not tell but leave enough space for readers to react and fill in the gaps with their imagination – especially when it comes to the ending.
  5. Openings are paramount: Opening the door for the reader is discussed with the expectation of grabbing your reading quickly. The opening has to raise a question and make your reader feel something for the character.  Titles also need to be attention-grabbing.  They should focus on the theme with key phrases in the text that encapsulate the theme being cited as a tried and tested tool.
  6. Stories are about themes: what a story says or a story’s meaning. Applying the so what principle is key when interrogating what happens in a narrative.  It isn’t the event that provides significance to the story but what we are supposed to think, question and learn as a result.  Alex Keegan, in his chapter, argues that a short story is saying something, one thing about the world.  And that sometimes stories can help to clarify our thoughts but that in using characters we can explore different reactions to situations that broadens our own view on the world and gives us an insight into what it means to be human.  As a result, he says we should put our characters in testing situations but trust them to act as they would.

Implications for my and my practice:

  1. More time consideration given to generating ideas and space to let these ideas develop.
  2. Am definitely going to use the character interview but do think pupils would benefit from exploring and developing a range of characters across key stages.  Asking the so-what for these characters will be critical and exploring how we use a range of techniques to present these characters to a reader.
  3. The power of openings.  Definitely going to collate a bank of openings to explore further.
  4. Lots of work on sentences and concision.
  5. More time given to the editing process.  Opportunities to read work aloud, have work peer-critiqued, and editing to ensure concision.


All in all this was a great read and has given me plenty to think about especially with regard to the ideas generating process and the editing process.  Some of the chapters started to get a little bit repetitive and some were definitely more helpful as a teacher than others but I don’t think teachers are the primary audience.  What was also incredibly special was the long list of short story recommendations.  Again, this isn’t aimed at a potential KS4/KS5 audience but certainly gives me, as a teacher, a good starting point to find an array of short stories to work with.

Short story recommendations from the book

  • ‘Lady with Lapdog’ by Anton Chekhov (1969)
  • Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx (2005)
  • ‘Lilac’ by Helen Dunmore (2001)
  • ‘Night Vision’ by Amy Bloom (2000)
  • ‘Losing Track’ by Tobias Hill (1998)
  • ‘After a Life’ by Yiyun Li (2006)
  • ‘Blood’ by Janice Galloway (1992)
  • ‘Meaty’s Boys’ by Adam Marek (2007)
  • ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter (1998)
  • ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ by Raymond Carver (1993)
  • ‘Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams’ by Sylvia Plath (1979)
  • ‘Silver Water’ by Amy Bloom (1994)
  • ‘The Last Days of Johnny North’ by David Swann (2006)
  • ‘Weddings and Beheadings’ by Hanif Kureishi (2007)
  • ‘The Moon Above his Head’ by Yann Martel
  • ‘Light is Like Water’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • ‘The Raft’ by Peter Orner
  • ‘A Small Good Thing’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘Midnight at the Hotel California’ by Petina Gappah
  • ‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever
  • ‘The Twenty Seventh Man’ by Nathan Englander
  • ‘Ballistics’ by Alex Keegan
  • ‘Funes the Memorious’ by Jorge Luis Borges
  • ‘And Cannot Come Again’ by John Burke
  • ‘Nitrate’ by Christopher Burns
  • ‘Egnaro’ by M John Harrison
  • ‘Cancer’ by Shelley Jackson
  • ‘BMW conversation’ by Cris Mazza
  • ‘When the Door Closed, It was Dark’ by Alison Moore
  • ‘Samphire’ by Patrick O’Brian
  • ‘Stage Fright’ by Lisa Natalie Pearson
  • ‘Murder’ by William sansom
  • ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce
  • ‘An Odour of Chrysanthemums’ by D.H. Lawrence
  • ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ by Alan Sillitoe
  • ‘The Love of a Good Woman’ by Alice Munro
  • ‘The Metamorphosis’ by Franz Kafka
  • ‘The Daughter of the Late Colonel’ by Katherine Mansfield
  • ‘Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘A Hypothalamus Knight’ by Nenad Velickovic
  • ‘Brown Sugar’ by John Bolland
  • ‘Dirty Tickle’ by Sara Crowley
  • ‘Googlehead’ by Alistair Gentry
  • ‘Studying to be Clark Kent’ by Hazera Forth
  • ‘Time Brought to Town in a Big Brown Bag’ by Richard Bird
  • ‘Fat’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April morning’ by Haruki Murakami
  • ‘Oh Joseph, I’m so Tired’ by Richard Yates
  • ‘The Pale Pink Roast’ by Grace Paley
  • ‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’ by Eudora Welty
  • ‘The Swimmer’ by John Cheever
  • ‘A perfect Day for Bananafish’ by J.D. Salinger
  • ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway
  • ‘The Walls are Cold’ by Truman Capote
  • ‘Tricks’ by Alison Munroe
  • ‘Nights at the Alexandria’ by William Trevor
  • ‘The Ant of the Self’ by ZZ Packer
  • ‘Whoever Was Using This Bed’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘Walking to the Danube’ by Phillip O’Ceallaigh
  • ‘The Numbers’ by Clare Wigfall
  • ‘Terroir’ by Graham Mort
  • ‘Last Night’ by James Salter
  • ‘Bullet in the Brain’ by Tobias Wolf
  • ‘Something that Needs Nothing’ by Miranda July
  • ‘The Room’ by William Trevor
  • ‘The Terms’ by Mike McCormack
  • ‘She Murdered Mortal He’ by Sarah Hall
  • ‘The Pale Gold of Alaska’ by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
  • ‘A Paris Story’ by David Constantine
  • ‘The Isabel’s Fish’ by Julie Orringer
  • ‘Babette’s Fish’ by Isak Dinesen
  • ‘Extra’ by Yiyun Li
  • ‘A Conversation with my Father’ by Grace Paley
  • ‘The Universal Story’ and ‘Gothic’ by Ali Smith
  • ‘After the Quake’ by Haruki Murakami
  • ‘Ignathous’ by Matthew Licht
  • ‘O city of Broken Dreams’ by John Cheever
  • ‘A Piece of News’ by Eudora Welty
  • ‘The Man of the House’ by Frank O’Connor
  • ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson
  • ‘An Anxious Man’ by James Lasdun
  • ‘Pilgrims’ by Julie Orringer
  • ‘The Father’ by Leonid Dobychin
  • ‘Winter Storm’ by Bernard MacLaverty
  • ‘Island’ by Alistair MacLeod
  • ‘The Piano Turner’s Wives’ by William Trevor
  • ‘A Small Good Thing’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘Slog’s Dad’ by David Almond
  • ‘What we Talk About When we Talk About Love’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘Little Lady and a Dog’ by Anton Chekov
  • ‘Teresa’s Wedding’ by William Trevor
  • ‘A Silver Dish’ by Saul Bellow
  • ‘The Twenth-Seventh Man’ by Nathan Englander
  • ‘The Ledge’ by Lawrence Sargeant Hall
  • ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’ by Ernest Hemingway
  • ‘Tumblers’ by Nathan Englander
  • ‘A Small Good Thing’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘The Things they Carried’ by Tim O’Brien
  • ‘Gesturing’ by John Updike
  • ‘Something to Remember Me By’ by Saul Bellow
  • ‘Hills like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway
  • ‘Billennium’ by J.G. Ballard
  • ‘Z.Z’s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers’ by Karen Russell
  • ‘Discharge’ by Alison MacLeod
  • ‘The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes’ by Haruki Marukami
  • ‘The Angel’ by Patrick McGrath
  • ‘The Numbers’ by Clare Wigfall
  • ‘So Proud’ by Robert Sherman
  • ‘Lions in Winter’ by Wena Poon
  • ‘Hat Trick’ by Ergar Keret
  • ‘The World’s Greatest Impressionist’ by David Bateman
  • ‘These Certain Young People’ by Dave Eggers
  • ‘Lipstick’ by Dan Rhodes
  • ‘The Lost Tree’ by Richard Brautigan
  • ‘My Guardian Angel’ by Charles Simic
  • ‘Per Milk’ by Stuart Dybek
  • ‘The Ledge’ by Lawrence Sargent Hall
  • ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ by Ernest Hemingway
  • ‘The Albanian Virgin’ by Alice Munro
  • ‘The End of Firpo in the World’ by George Saunders
  • ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ by Flannery O’Connor
  • ‘Good Living’ by Aleksandar Hemon
  • ‘Letters from Kilburn’ by Vanessa Gebbie
  • ‘Diamond Alley’ by Dennis McFadden
  • ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘Gusev’ by Anton Chekhov
  • ‘In the Gloaming’ by Alice Elliott Dark
  • ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ by Ernest Hemingway
  • ‘Araby’ by James Joyce
  • ‘At the Desk of Daniel Varsky’ by Nicole Krauss
  • ‘Which is More Than You Can Say About Some People’ by Lorrie Moore
  • ‘Floating Bridge’ by Alice Munro
  • ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ by Flannery O’Connor
  • ‘Getting it Straight’ by Chris Ofutt
  • ‘The Shawl’ by Cynthia Ozick
  • ‘Friends’ by Grace Paley
  • ‘Joy Luck Club’ by Amy Tan
  • ‘Winter Break’ by Hilary Mantel
  • ‘Where I’m Calling From’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘The Overcoat’ by Nikolai Gogol
  • ‘The Girlfriend’ by Tamar Yellin
  • ‘Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver
  • ‘The Darling’ by Anton Chekhov
  • ‘A Real Doll’ by A M Homes
  • ‘Bullet in the brain’ by Tobias Wolf
  • ‘In the Gloaming’ by Alice Elliot Dark
  • ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ by Roald Dahl
  • ‘Mad About The Boy’ by Georgina Hammick
  • ‘In Dreams Begins Responsibilities’ by Delmore Schwartz
  • ‘Present for a Good Girl’ by Nadine Gordimer
  • ‘Life of Ma Parker’ by Katherine Mansfield
  • ‘The Man Who Drew the Brook’ by Richard Blandford
  • ‘Quiet Hour’ by Sarah Salway
  • ‘Seeing Anyone’ by Tom Vowler

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