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By: Dr Jonathan Gibbs (Programme Director, Creative and Professional Writing) 

Short stories are a bit of a strange case when it comes to the teaching of Creative Writing, at university and elsewhere. Certainly, stories are less important in the literary marketplace than novels – they don’t sell as much, and they don’t get read as much ­– but they do get taught a lot. Why is this?

Firstly there is the practical issue of length. Even if a student manages to write a whole novel, no lecturer would be able to mark it, let alone a whole class’s worth of them – and in any case, the university assessment rules wouldn’t allow it.

Stories are far more manageable. And, crucially, they are a great way of learning the skills of being a writer, of flexing the muscles that we use to create compelling characters, narrative, voice – all the things that go to create an immersive reading experience.

And the skills you learn writing a short story – concision, clarity, close control of the impact on the reader – are skills that you will take into all sorts of other situations, other kinds of writing.

How short is short, though? And how little can you get away with putting into a short story and still make it fun to read, and useful to study? Anything under 1,000 words tends to get called ‘flash fiction’ these days (though some say a piece has to come in under 500 words, or even 250, to earn the name), but short short stories can still pack a punch.

At our recent Applicant Day I gave the visiting applicants a story by Helen Simpson called ‘Up at a Villa’ that had to be short, because we needed time to read and discuss it, and then do a writing exercise based on it. The story is just under 1,400 words and, although not much happens in it, it does a brilliant job of introducing us to no less than six characters, some of them merely sketched out, some more thoroughly established.

In the story, four teenagers on holiday in the south of France break into a villa to go skinny-dipping in the pool, then wake up after a boozy picnic to find the family staying there unexpectedly back home. Simpson is less interested in producing conflict and drama in the traditional sense, however, than in setting up indelible images.

In fact, she gives us a clue to what she’s doing in the text of the story. As the teenagers watch the squabbling English couple from their hiding place, one of them, Charlotte, is reminded of another, different couple she once unwittingly spied on. Her memory is described as “a framed picture from a childhood camping holiday”, and as “a secret snapshot” that Charlotte has kept to herself. Then, when the still mostly naked teenagers break cover and make their escape across the pool terrace, Simpson describes the watching couple as being “frozen together for a photographic instant”.

So, a short story doesn’t have to have a ‘plot’. It can be the creation of a “frozen moment” ­– and, Simpson seems to be suggesting, you can build hundreds of stories out of the “secret snapshots” that are hidden in your memories. That’s partly what Creative Writing is: using your memory, using your imagination, and putting both to work.

Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary's

Creative and Professional Writing challenges you to explore the universes of your imagination. The friendly and supportive teaching team includes major literary award winners and bestselling novelists, fantasy and horror writing experts, international journalists and TV scriptwriters.