RTÉ Short Story Competition 2022: Novelist and filmmaker Ferdia Mac Anna, a judge at this year's RTÉ Short Story Competition, offers some sound advice for budding writers
A compelling, flawed main character (the term 'protagonist’ should be stuffed into a barrel and pushed out to sea). That’s what I want. To read about someone I can care about and root for.
If the Main Character has a relatable goal, along with passion and determination to achieve it, then I will be hooked. I won’t need to like the character, but it’s essential I know where they are coming from.
I prefer stories that have pace, a bit of a pulse about them. Language that comes from the character and their world.
I don’t look for an authorial voice telling me what to see and feel. If character and story are plausible, distinct and engaging, I will remain on the journey to the end.
In a short story there should be nowhere to hide.
A rule I usually agree with is Show, Don’t Tell. Once I detect polemic, or obvious exposition or too much explanation or unnecessary backstory or an author showing off with fancy language and narrative tricks or attempting to weld the reader into a theme, I will detach.
Give me conflict, atmosphere, a curious, significant setting. Character-driven dialogue and a brisk pace. Intrigue, surprise and enthral. Keep the reader at least one step behind. In other words, a tale needs to be unpredictable or at least, artfully disguised so it feels as though we are participating in an unravelling, a revelation.
I want to follow the character on a journey to learn something, experience an epiphany, reach a gobsmacking or satisfying or shocking conclusion, or be surprised.
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Listen: RTÉ Arena marks the launch of the RTÉ Short Story Competition 2022 with judges Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Ferdia Mac Anna and Lisa McInerney
Kurt Vonnegut said writers should be sadists and make bad things happen to main characters to show readers what they are made of. I get that. Who wants to read about a vanilla person doing bland literary deeds in a world where everything is beige? I would bail by the third paragraph.
One of my heroes was - and still is - Ray Bradbury. He famously encouraged writers to jump off a cliff and find their wings on the way down.
Reading a good short story should feel like jumping off a cliff. Take risks. That’s what Bradbury meant. Don’t settle down. Follow the story. Embrace your imagination. Rules are great and handy things, but they should be undermined and subverted. Know the rules, then break them.
My favourite short story writers break rules - Alice Munro (makes up her own), Lorrie Moore (invents new ones), Anton Chekhov, Angela Carter, Flannery O’Connor, David Sedaris and Raymond Carver and so many others, as well as newer talents such as Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgeway, June Caldwell (Rules? What rules?) and Wendy Erskine possess distinct, captivating voices.
Intrigue, surprise and enthral.
Voice is the key for me. I return time and again to the ‘voices’ of my favourites. There are few joys comparable to that, except discovering a new ‘voice’, and embarking on a crusade to devour their stories.
David Sedaris said: "A good short story would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit."
I go along with that. In a short story there should be nowhere to hide. Like a screenplay, every word and each sentence should earn its keep. It should bring the listener on a journey before leaving them home almost intact.
Truth is I don’t know what I am looking for in a short story. Maybe nobody does, but like myself, they know it when they find it.
All I can say for certain is I want to enter a human vision and for a little while, feel mesmerised, uplifted, surprised and transported. Beir Bua...
The RTÉ Short Story Competition 2022 in honour of Francis MacManus is now open for entries, and writers have until Friday 13th May to submit their short story to the competition - find out more here