RTÉ Short Story Competition 2022: GIVE ME THE RECIPE! Acclaimed novelist and short story writer Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, a judge at this year's RTÉ Short Story Competition, offers some handy hints for budding writers...


'Well, I read a line. And I like it. ..enough to read the next' quotes George Saunders, in his excellent book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

I get that, but it is as useful as ‘I like this cake so I’ll have another bite.’ Give me the recipe!

Maybe there isn’t one?

I always like to have a text to work with. I haven’t got your stories yet. Every single one will have a life of its own. Some story may leap out, screaming – or more likely whispering, since the voice of short story is often soft and low - ‘I’m the winner.’ It can happen.

But what is likely to enthrall?

First, it will be the style. The voice will be intimate, clear and compelling. The prose will be beautiful - not fussy, not flowery, but rhythmical, rich, and right for the story. The protagonist will be interesting. Someone I want to get to know.

‘At the end of the summer Lydia took a boat to an island off the southern coast of New Brunswick where she was going to stay overnight. She worked as an editor, for a publisher in Toronto. She was also a poet, but she did not refer to that unless it was something people knew about already. For the eighteen months she had been living with a man in Kingston. As far as she could see, that was over.’

Dulse by Alice Munro (from her collection The Moons of Jupiter) was not written for the radio but this opening paragraph would work well on the air. We are introduced to Lydia. We know what she is doing, what she works at, and her situation.

The challenge for a radio story is different from that of the printed story.

There is no pussy footing about here. Immediately, I trust the narrator of the story. She is not going to play tricks on me, but give me necessary information. Still, there are questions. Why doesn’t Lydia admit to being a poet? What happened with that man in Kingston? Why is she going to the island? We can speculate. But if I were listening to this story I would feel bereft if someone switched off the radio before I got some answers.

This is the kind of writing that will rise to the top of the pile, for me.

Ok, says you! I sort of get it.

Anything more specific? Can I weigh the dialogue? Measure the sentences?

Something has to happen to somebody. And that something should happen on the surface of the story, in the action , and underneath – in the head and the heart of that somebody. Something will change – for the character, or for us, or ideally for both. The event, the drama, doesn’t have to be big or sensational – it could be a conversation. But if nothing at all happens it’s not a story.

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The challenge for a radio story is different from that of the printed story. The listener needs to follow it with ease. ‘The Law of the Single Strand’, a universal pattern in oral folktales, is worth bearing in mind when you are writing for the ear. Stick to the thread of the tale, for the sake of your listener. She can’t turn back the page. By all means vary the length of your sentences but err on the side of short. Finally, read it aloud before you submit it.

Anything else?

Just write it. Be yourself – you are original, imaginative, thoughtful. Your story will be unique.

And no, there isn’t a 100% guaranteed recipe. Even cakes sometimes turn out perfect and some don’t rise - especially complicated Christmas cakes – the short story is more like a fairy cake, perhaps? Skill and experience count. Be crafty. But the spark that ignites the imagination doesn’t have a thermostat. Some things are out of your conscious control.

Agus, tá fáilte geala roimh scéalta i nGaeilge. Tá Gaeilge ag na moltóirí a dhéanann an gearrliosta, agus gan amhras agamsa.

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.