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Three Unusual Techniques To Try In Your Short Stories

May 25th, 2021

Savannah CordovaI’ve helped judge Reedsy’s weekly short story contest for nearly three years now, and it’s honestly been one of the most creatively fruitful experiences of my life. I’m a short fiction writer myself, and reading thousands of stories has helped me realize what actually goes into a good one — rather than what you think is good, but is really just self-indulgent or overdone.

Diana’s post on making sure your competition entries are original provides some excellent guidance on what to avoid in your stories. But today I want to talk about a few elements you might try experimenting with for greater success, along with some past Reedsy winners as examples! Though all these techniques take practice to pull off, once you’ve nailed them, you’re sure to grab a contest judge’s attention. 

  1. Second person narration

Each of these three tactics comes with the caveat “only if it serves the story”, and perhaps none more so than second person. This kind of narration, in which the narrator addresses the story to “you”, can easily become corny or distracting if misused.

However, stories that are especially emotional or high-stakes may benefit from second person narration, which instantly ratchets up the intensity. Take, for example, the opening lines from one of our Reedsy contest winners, “Your Move”:

“This is a story about the man who wants to kill you. I have my doubts, not about the man or about the story, but about you. I fear I do all this for nothing.”

Right away, the narrator pins you down with suspense. The rest of the story is just as gripping, partly thanks to its brevity (another short story tip — when it comes to word count, less is almost always more), but also thanks to its second person narration.

That said, your second-person story doesn’t have to be a thriller. This narration style can draw readers into any sort of emotionally charged piece, as with past Reedsy winners “A Gamble” and “No Hard Feelings”. Just make sure it’s a suitable, purposeful choice — narration that bolsters your story as it is, rather than trying to make it into something it’s not.

  1. Thematic metaphors

Every writer loves a good descriptive metaphor. Why not take it a step further and imbue your short story with a larger thematic metaphor, one that runs through the entire narrative?

As with second person narration, this must be done carefully so as not to feel trite or heavy-handed, but is quite powerful when the balance is right. One great example of thematic metaphor can be found in our recent Reedsy winner “The Tree Surgeon’s Dictionary”, which creates a simple yet effective parallel between the main character and an elm tree.

In this story’s case, the theme is evident: no living thing can flourish forever, but even a small fresh start brings hope. Indeed, nature metaphors are often useful for conveying profound messages about life. If you’re writing a story involving nature, consider beforehand if you can naturally (no pun intended) incorporate any meaningful thematic metaphors.

Also keep in mind that these metaphors don’t need two separate threads (one figurative and one literal), as in the story above, to make their point — providing the figurative portion is often enough for readers to connect it to real life. But “The Tree Surgeon’s Dictionary”, with its clear-cut parallels, is a good one to study if you’re not sure how thematic metaphors work.

  1. Vignettes over a long period of time

One of the best ways to shape a short story is to focus on a key emotion and go from there. This usually results in the story taking place over a relatively short period of time, centering on one or two major events. But a story can be just as effective when it’s told over a long period — years or even decades — so long as the author doesn’t lose sight of that key emotion.

“Golden Cheekbones and the Rising Sun” and “The Memory Garden” both do a marvelous job of this.These stories depict the quiet satisfaction of “ordinary” lives, and how love deepens and perseveres over time, even through difficult circumstances.

The lengthy timeline is obviously essential here, but both authors take care not to overwhelm the reader with details. This is why vignettes, or vignette-like descriptions, are crucial to this technique, leaving readers to fill in the blanks themselves. I’ve seen my fair share of stories with long timelines that painstakingly recount the events of every season, but truth be told, it’s just not as compelling as the vignette style. Again, with short stories, less is usually more!

Though none of these tactics is guaranteed to win you a short story contest, they’ll certainly push you to experiment with different forms and ideas — and as mentioned, in my experience, experiential range is just what you need to become a better storyteller.

So with my blessing, go forth and try new things! And if you’re looking to expand your horizons by reading other people’s work, definitely consider applying to become a Reedsy contest judge. If you’re anything like me, it could be a game-changer for your own writing.

 

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace and resource hub for writers and self-publishing authors. She loves short fiction and judging the weekly Reedsy contest is her favorite part of the job. In her spare time, Savannah also greatly enjoys reading contemporary novels and attempting to write her own.

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