Acclaimed novelist Lisa McInerney is one of the judge's for this year's Francis MacManus RTÉ Short Story Competition - below, she explores the fine art of the short story...

The short story was always something I was a little afraid of as a writer. For a reader, a good short story is invigorating. An experience contained in a few pages, honed, but packing a punch... exactly why it's a challenging format for the writer. It takes skill to give something so concise the appropriate weight. And yet, even the newest writers should feel permitted to take a crack at the short story.

Flower Wild by Shane Tivenan (above) won the
1st Prize in the RTÉ Short Story Competition 2020 - listen to it here.

Ireland is known for spinning yarns and ráméising and our short story writers are among the best in the world. This is good news for the new writer. There are plenty from whom to draw inspiration, both in the canon and in contemporary work, and the form is much loved here, so we can be sure we will find readers. There are a healthy number of literary journals and magazines to submit to, workshops and mentorships for those who want to develop their craft, competitions for writers ready for recognition, grants for more established writers who want space and time to perfect their work.

When I was starting out, the weight of that literary history and Ireland’s respect and appetite for the short story could sometimes feel daunting. Almost a decade, three novels, and a dozen or so published short stories later, I can identify a couple of things that helped.

Ireland is known for spinning yarns and ráméising and our short story writers are among the best in the world. This is good news for the new writer.

The first was coming to my own understanding of what a short story is. I started thinking of a story as a dark room I must illuminate. When I’m writing a novel, it’s as if I’m holding a flashlight. I can swing it about and focus on whatever catches my eye, I can light up nooks and corners until the space is utterly familiar. But with a short story, it’s more like I’m limited to the use of a spotlight fixed on only one area of my characters’ lives, one detailed moment or short sequence. The trick is describing where the light falls whilst leaving the reader in no doubt as to the size of the rest of the room. The space my characters inhabit has to feel real, and the reader has to believe that beyond this moment, my characters could lead full lives.

But what if the limits intrinsic to a short story mean the writer actually ends up with more freedom? This is the second of the lessons I learned about short stories, expanding my understanding of what was possible, and it actually came from my co-judge for this year’s Francis MacManus RTÉ Short Story Competition, Lucy Caldwell.

RTÉ Short Story Competition judge Lucy Caldwell

At a literary panel a few years ago, Lucy suggested that the advantage to the short story was the fact that it so naturally allowed for experimentation, because the writer didn’t need to sustain a particularly ambitious voice, character or plot for the length of a novel. The short story is just the right form for adventuring; the space might be limited, but there’s still enough room to play. I can switch tones, lead with an unreliable narrator, employ a lot of dialogue or a villain’s stream-of-consciousness, or snap into some unexpected voice at the end. Who says my fixed spotlight can’t be swivelled a little?

Our shortlist for 2021’s Francis MacManus RTÉ Short Story Competition is proof of this. Lucy, Declan and I were taken by the variety of voice and theme in the entries, and we’re happy to have been able to choose a shortlist reflecting that variety, and representing the short story writer’s capacity for experimentation and fun. We write stories for so many reasons: to test ourselves, to create something beautiful, to entertain or provoke, to process our experiences. It might be that the right way in to the short story, as a new writer, is to put the rules and the history aside. Figure out what can be seen in that spotlight and by whom, and consider ways to pull the rug from under them.

Find out more about this year's Francis MacManus RTÉ Short Story Competition shortlist here.