Swiss Toni’s Guide to Writing Short Stories

swiss_toniI was recently very honoured to be given the job of editing the Verulam Writers’ Circle‘s first anthology for getting on for twenty years, and – quite reasonably – one of our number, the über-talented Jenny Barden –  has posed the question of what I am actually looking for. I did try to write an answer as a comment to her original post, but then I realised that if I did this properly, it would end up as long as a post in its own right. So here is that post.

Readers in the UK will probably be familiar with Swiss Toni from the Fast Show, played by comedy God Charlie Higson. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the character, Swiss Toni is a bouffant-haired used car salesman whose shtick is to liken everything to making love to a beautiful woman – and it struck me that maybe this is the way to explain what I’m looking for in a short story. Because, after all, isn’t writing a short story like … well, maybe not, but it set me thinking. Now this could get a little cheesy, but stick with me, because I think it might be a metaphor that’s worth working with.

Reading a novel is like getting into a long-term commitment, even if sometimes you feel the need to break it off early on because you know it’s not working out (I’m looking at you, Umberto Eco’s “Island of the Day Before”). You’ll probably take a good look before becoming involved in the first place – perhaps you ask your friends if you think it will work for you, or maybe you just study the blurb on the back. Either way, by the time you get to the end of the book, you will have spent a considerable amount of time in its intimate company.

The kind of relationship you have with a short story, on the other hand, is more like a one night stand with a stranger that you happen to pick up in a shady downtown bar. It’s a far more risky proposition, and yet one which can be just as exciting. So I hear, anyway.

So let’s for the moment pretend that I’m not an unprepossessing middle-aged beardie bloke and imagine instead that I’m that beautiful/handsome editor sitting a couple of stools away from you. How are you as a short story writer going to make this a night to remember? Here are a few suggestions.

1. First Impressions

Let’s consider how you are going to make that all-important good first impression. The first thing of course is the title. Does it stand out from the crowd? Is it intriguing? Or is it so wacky that I’m going to think you’re a nutter and move away from you?  What about the opening sentence? Does it draw me in? Does it pose questions? If you start off talking about the weather or introducing the characters, one by one, chances are I’m not going to stick around. Cut to the chase. Make me want to find out more about you.

2. Show Me You Know What You’re Doing

I really don’t want to leave this bar in the company of someone who’s a complete klutz. I want someone who’ll look after me and isn’t likely to trip me up as we’re getting into a taxi. And I sure as hell don’t want to catch you picking your nose when you think I’m not looking. So please make sure your writing flows and doesn’t jerk me out of the fictive dream.

3. Don’t be Cheap

If you ask me what I want to drink, don’t complain if I ask for Bollinger. I’m not going to give myself to anyone who isn’t prepared to put in the mileage. So I’m looking for someone who takes care in their writing and doesn’t resort to adverbs as a cheap way of describing action, for example. No shortcuts, please.

4. There Are Two of Us In This Relationship

I really don’t want to spend the evening being talked at. Sure, you’ve got loads of interesting things to say, but I want to be emotionally involved too. So show me things. Ask me questions. Let me work things out for myself. Don’t just tell me stuff.

5. No Unpleasant Surprises …

If I do decide to go home with you, I’d prefer it if you don’t suddenly produce the handcuffs and gimp mask as soon as we walk in the door – unless, of course, we’d previously established that that kind of thing was likely to be on the agenda. In which case, I would of course have no problem with it all. So no sudden appearances of zombies in the middle of a regency romance. Actually, that might have been a bad example. But you know what I mean.

6 … Particularly Late on in the Proceedings

I’m also probably going to take it badly if the glamorous woman that I’ve left the bar with turns out to be a bloke when things are just starting to get steamy – unless the clues were all there for me to work out (like that time when she went to the Gents) and it was my problem that I failed to add two and two together. So, please be very careful if you feel the need to spring it on me in the last paragraph that the protagonist is actually a cat, for example. Or dead. Don’t do this kind of thing unless you’ve properly foreshadowed it earlier on in the story. And even then, think twice before doing it at all.

7. Don’t Kick Me Out as Soon as It’s Over

Avoid the temptation to finish the story too soon. If there’s a big revelation at the end, you may well be able to extract more mileage out of it by looking at the impact of this revelation. One of my favourite stories, Graham Greene’s “A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road” is a perfect example of this. I don’t want to spoil it for you in case you’ve never read it, but there is a wonderfully gruesome twist right near the end. A lesser writer would have been tempted to end it there, but Greene adds a further paragraph in which the protagonist tries to face up to what he’s been told, increasing the emotional impact of the story one hundredfold.

8. I Don’t Just Want a Meaningless Fling

OK, it’s a one-night stand, but I’d like to think it meant something for both of us. So tell me something about myself I didn’t know before, even if it’s something uncomfortable. Or tell me something about the world that I didn’t know before. Or maybe just make me laugh. Or cry. Whatever you do, don’t leave me thinking “Well, that was a waste of time.”

9. But … Anything Goes

Notice that in none of the foregoing did I say anything about subject matter. Or whether you write in the first, second or third person, or whether you use the past, present or future tense. I haven’t even said anything about whether or not adult themes or language are acceptable.

Because, frankly, I’m not bothered. All I’m looking for is good writing, full stop. What you choose to do with it is entirely up to you.

(With apologies to Charlie Higson, who I hope will forgive me if he ever finds out about this. By way of recompense, I would like to urge anyone reading this to go straight to the Facebook group “Bring back Bellamy’s People” and join it, in the hope that the BBC change their mind and commission a second series after all. What? You never saw it? Oh, you’re in for a treat when the DVD comes out.)

24 thoughts on “Swiss Toni’s Guide to Writing Short Stories

  1. First things first. Am glad that the picture is not of you, as I first thought! Hah.

    All your nine points are quite sensible tips that are applicable to short stories, including the flash fiction that I have been reading and writing lately.

    Will print this out to read again!

  2. Ahem. I’d like to make it publicly and abundantly clear that, should I submit material for consideration in connection with the Verulam Writers’ Circle Anthology, it does not constitute an offer of a relationship or even a date. Thank you.

    Excellent post, Jon. I’m beginning to see where I’m going wrong. It begins with sitting in front of a computer screen with the bizarre delusion that I can string words together into sentences.

    Do have a rethink about the sudden appearance of zombies in a regency romance, though. Or – now here’s a really screwy idea – perhaps aliens might work?



  3. @Marisa No, it’s definitely not me. My hair is considerably thinner, for one thing. Glad you found the advice useful 🙂

    @Oscar Oh, you disappoint me. I thought we had something special. Either way, I do like your aliens idea. I’ll get onto it straight away.

  4. (I’m looking at you, Umberto Eco’s “Island of the Day Before”)

    You too, huh?

  5. @Ian Yep. I really do try to carry on to the end of most things, but I lost the will to live with that one. See also Iain Pears’ “Dream of Scipio.”

  6. Yeah. IOTDB is one of only a handful of books I’ve failed to finish (especially disappointing after Foucault’s Pendulum). Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is another (Look at all the research I’ve done! Look! Look! Look!)

  7. Yep, me too (IOTDB).

    Excellent article Jon. I particularly like your point about not being too abrupt with endings. That’s something I haven’t especially considered before in short stories, though I take great care with endings in novels.

  8. And there I was thinking you might make a full of yourself (as if!) Excellent advice, all of it. I agree with the ending thing and thinking of WIP which is proving hard to finish. Too abrupt can make a punch-line where none is needed. Just one more para or sentence can make it a graceful adieu.

  9. Thanks, Cathy and Ali! Oddly it was a comment by Ian (^^^) in response to Jenny’s original post at If Shakespeare that prompted me to make a specific point about endings. I say oddly, because I actually disagreed with his contention that competitions have encouraged a rash of “ta-da” endings in contemporary short stories. But it did make me think about some of the ones that I like (although Graham Greene is hardly contemporary, I know) that use a softer ending.

  10. Good post, Jon.
    The third point is my favourite. I like to be dazzled by the choice of words, whether they are simple or splendid.

  11. Thanks, Claire! The important word there is “choice”. Sometimes it is just a simple, well-chosen word that dazzles.

  12. Yeah, like, I’ve had a few old dogs in my time; plots I’d prefer to forget about, characters that fell apart in the cold light of day, efforts I’ve slunk away from with my tail between my legs (metaphorically, or maybe not). Real horror shows. I like to think they’re what made me the man I am today (smirks).

  13. An excellent post,Jon, and one to which I’ve responded, as follows, on ‘If Shakespeare’:

    Reading a short story is indeed like a one night stand – and it can end just as abruptly if your date fails to hook! But I do think Ian made a very good point about ‘Ta da!’ endings, and it’s interesting that ‘Swiss Toni’s’ advice on this has attracted so much comment…

    I’d say that current trends in short story collections appear (at least to me) to be moving away from the ’sock it in your eye’ reveal. As Ali Smith said: ‘A short story’s end isn’t an end at all, but always a kind of beginning.’ Certainly the Bridport winner last year, Jenny Clarkson’s ‘Something’ (which I love) ended very quietly and pensively, with a sense of continuation, and no great denouement, surprise or resolution.

    This is not to suggest that Ian doesn’t have a point, because, I think, in a way, he does. It’s your point 8, Jon, ‘I Don’t Just Want a Meaningless Fling’. A good short story has to have meaning – it’s got to deliver a consummation – it must be a changing experience in some way. And with an eye to the word limits now demanded in most competitions, it’ll probably have to do that in under 2000 words. So I guess there will be a ‘Ta da!’ – But maybe it won’t be appreciated all at once in a climax of a few seconds!!

  14. Thanks for dropping in, Jenny, and apologies for late response. If I’d replied last night, however, it might have been a little incoherent …

    It is indeed a challenge to deliver that kind of life-changing experience in <2000 words without a "ta da", but not totally impossible. And if you want some examples of that, I could do worse than point you in the direction of Nik's (^^^) recent collection, most of which are a LOT less than 2000 words long and yet still deliver.

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