Writers On Writing / Felicity Castagna on what makes a successful short story

‘The short story has an intensity that cannot be replicated all the way through a longer text like a novel – that’s when you know it is a successful story.’

Felicity Castagna is an author and teacher whose debut novel The Incredible Here and Now won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literature Award (YA). She currently teaches creative writing all around Australia.

Short stories have to accomplish so much in a short space. What can short stories do to hook readers?

Image of No More Boats book cover by author Felicity Castagna; cover is black with 'NO MORE BOATS' text in grey and a photograph of a weatherboard house lit from inside with a yellow sedan from the 90s parked outsideThe answer to the question lies somewhere in an understanding of what the short story is ‘about’ and on the surface that often isn’t very much. In a lot of short stories not much seems to happen. Take for example Nam Le’s brilliant short story, ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.’ Essentially, this is a story about a guy who is trying to write something but gets interrupted by a visit from his father who doesn’t appear to appreciate his writing very much.

This work shows that what short stories are really about is not plot but the slice of life that they manage to translate onto the page. This story works more by implication, by mood and atmosphere. It is more about the things that are not said than the things that are said. The limited space the form allows for here enforces a preciseness with language and imagery that you don’t always get in the novel. A series of almost non-events are turned into something of profound significance as Le uses them to hint at his father’s traumatic past and his inability to really communicate with a son who lives in a present he can’t comprehend. The short story has an intensity that cannot be replicated all the way through a longer text like a novel – that’s when you know it is a successful story.

Often the hardest part of writing isn’t the first draft; it’s the second, or the third. What’s the best way to go about editing a short story?

Writers need to think really hard about what the one real focus of the story is. There may be mutiple issues or themes raised in a short story but there should always be that one thing that the story is most about. Whatever doesn’t move your central focus forward needs to be cut, even if it’s just a word or a sentence.

What’s the most useful piece of advice on short storytelling you’ve come across?

CS Lewis argued that the series of events the reader is offered in a short story are only ‘a net to catch something else.’ I think what he meant by this is that a short story is ultimately about using a small moment in time to make a much larger point about the world we live in.

Felicity’s writing course Shaping the Short Story will take place over 6 x Wednesday evenings: 7, 14, 21, 28 February; 7, 14 March 2018, 6:30-9:30pm. 

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