Julia Armfield studied on our second-ever London-based novel-writing course in 2011 – along with Kate Hamer, James Hannah, Annabelle Thorpe and Tim Glencross, to name just a few. Julia was the youngest on the course – and, at a mere 21, one of the youngest students we’ve had full-stop! Julia won the White Review short story prize 2018 and went on to write a mesmerising short story collection Salt Slow. Julia was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year in 2019 and won the Pushcart Prize in 2020.
We asked Julia to divulge some of her top tips for writing short stories, take a look ….
I like writing short stories because they end. This probably sounds unsentimental, if not to say tediously pragmatic, but so much of writing, for me, is bound up in the validation of a thing finished – the handed-in homework sensation of something concise and complete.
Of course, there are many other reasons why I think short stories are the ideal medium: they allow a freedom of suggestion made trickier by the novel format and the ability to focus in on a single tone or twist. The world of a short story can be bigger than that of a novel, purely by virtue of the things you can leave unsaid. The margins of something short are ripe for imagination – the undescribed things can be whatever the reader wants them to be in a way that the breadth of a novel doesn’t quite allow.
Even so, writing a short story can still be a daunting process – the particular pressure of making something work in a tiny word count combined with the simple difficulty of knowing where to start. Below is a little round up of advice I’ve found most useful when trying to keep a short story in check:
Know what you’re talking about
For all that the brevity of short stories means you leave a lot to suggestion, it’s important that you know what’s going on, even if you show the reader only a fraction of that. Knowing details of a character, even if you never reveal them, will allow you to write without contradiction, and will give your story depth.
Rely on your senses
As a general rule, I am only ever mildly concerned with plot. Short stories, to me, are at their best when they work as an invocation of tone or mood, a small slice of something tangible. This doesn’t mean that a through-line isn’t important, as you still need enough urgency to drag the reader to the end, but spending time on descriptive elements – smells and tastes and textures – is what makes a short story memorable to me.
Don’t fixate on twists
A lot of good short stories have them but a lot of good short stories don’t. Try not to manufacture intrigue where it isn’t coming naturally – the thing you’re writing almost definitely has value even if you aren’t building towards a shock finale.
Mess about with form
Sometimes the best route out of writer’s block is throwing what you have up in the air and bringing it down in a different order. If you’re having trouble with a straight narrative style, rethink your strategy – could the story you’re telling be better expressed in a different voice? In a different tense? As a newspaper report?
Write to the end
Just do it – you can worry about everything else later.
Read short stories
The more you do, the more you’ll realise there are no hard and fast rules as to what a short story actually is. Understanding the kind of stories you enjoy will allow you firstly to imitate and ultimately to create the style that you want for yourself.