Short Story Competition 2004
Canadian Authors Association, Niagara Branch
Great fiction kindles enlightenment about the human condition. A novel ignites understanding in a floodlight, while a short story creates a small but fiery flash. The illumination can be equally intense.
The three winning stories produce this kind of light, using elements essential to all compelling fiction: empathetic protagonists who deal with conflict which they experience personally and passionately.
The first place winner, “The Royal Oak,” is exceptional for its richly layered characters rendered in a few deft strokes, and for a conflict that is very clear and focused: a solitary young woman is withdrawing from life until her lover’s ultimatum and her uncle’s plea lead her to embrace the lives around her. The second place winner, “A Two-Martini Day,” masterfully uses the protagonist’s good-natured humour to portray this character’s deep grief. The third place winner, “Truth,” depicts a street-smart loner whose experience has taught her that appearances can never be trusted.
The seven stories in the honourable mention category would benefit from fine-tuning to increase their impact, but each has praiseworthy elements, from the driving narrative of “Leona Nigra,” to the powerful controlling idea of “Party Line,” to the engaging suspense of “Reflections.”
Of the twenty-three other stories that comprised the “short list” finalists, many were mere character sketches rather than stories. A story requires reversals, preferably two. This is known as three-act structure. Forged in ancient drama, it remains to this day the most satisfying structure, whether on stage, in film, or in fiction. Constructing a story around two reversals always pay off.
This phenomenon – constructing art – belies our society’s myth that fine writing flows from inspiration, unimpeded, as though the writer were a passive medium. The myth persists because when writing is good it looks easy. (Conversely, and ironically, if it looks “impressive” it’s not good writing.) Art in writing does not spring forth whole and complete. It is shaped through a process that requires the planning of plot and characters, then testing the plan in a draft, then editing and re-writing, invariably through several more drafts, until the story is clear, compelling, and concise. This is the writer’s craft – and craft leads to art. The shaping is what makes it art; the opposite is “real life.”
Sadly, the myth of inspiration can hobble an emerging writer, who, underestimating the process, and convinced that their writing “should” be effortless, can get discouraged. The advice from this writer is: persevere. Love the process. And be ruthless in honing your writing. If something isn’t working – a character’s motivation, a plot strand, a convoluted paragraph – throw it out. Rethink it and reshape it. Keep doing this until you’ve trimmed the flab, until your characters are living, breathing people, and until the controlling idea of your story shines through.
Is writing hard work? Yes. But the effort can produce a thrilling result for the reader: a priceless glow of enlightenment.