A wee while back I was a judge for a short story writing competition and the experience of reading scores of stories prompted some thinking on what I like in a short story, and how I think you should approach writing one. So, for what it’s worth, here’s some thoughts on the process from me.

Writing a short story is a bit like telling a joke. The trick is to grab your audience’s attention, lead them through a situation, and garner a response from them when you’re done.

And like a joke, the best stories start just before the punchline is due. If you’re telling a “Horse walks into a bar” joke, you don’t start with a horse out in a field.

Start as close to the end as you can and only fill in as much back story as is required.

For example, you don’t need to tell how the horse came to be able to talk, how scientists the world over were baffled, how all that talking made him thirsty, and how he managed to get a pig on his back.

This is a story – you need to be able to get your audience to suspend their disbelief for as long as the story takes. Too much explanation and exposition and the audience gets bored quickly.

Similarly, you don’t need the input of the guy at the bar who knows the pig, has met him before and wants a chat about old times before the barman gets involved. Trim all extraneous voices and characters.

And do remember the climax / punchline. If your story ends with the horse asking for a beer, you haven’t finished yet.

In short, get in, get out, and leave them wanting more.

And please, please, please avoid constructs such as ‘She nodded her head and it fell off.’