This is an analysis of the kind of issues and problems that arise when writing a short story, and my commentary should be of benefit to anyone who is interested in the technique of that particular art form. To illustrate my points, I’m using as a case study a short story entitled “Go Home!” from a collection of nine short stories, all of them set on the fictitious Shakespeare housing estate in London. The book from which it’s taken is called The Unwashed and the author is Sean Hogan. The second edition of this book was first published in August 2016, has 103 reviews and ratings on Amazon, and has achieved an overall global rating of 4.2 out of 5 stars.
In terms of its deep structure, an anomaly has arisen as a result of a change of mind on the part of the author, and it’s easy to see how this has happened. In short, the central character was initially female. How do we know this? Well, the blurb reads as follows: “A refugee named Aisha arriving from a war torn country, frightened and thrown into a world she has little understanding of.”
In the story as published the central character is a boy of indeterminate age called Ali, whose sister is named Alia. What’s more, a trace of the original sex of the character remains in the story – at one point we find the following: “She [Alia] seemed unnerved, clinging to my dress.” What this clearly demonstrates is that making any substantial change to the deep structure of a story is a potential source of error. It’s not simply a case of changing pronouns from she to he, there’s much more to it than that, and one must therefore be on one’s guard when making such fundamental alterations. The original sex of the protagonist might also account for his passive nature, despite his first attempt at travelling on the Underground into London in order to see Big Ben and his protective nature towards the small boy, Michael, whom he befriends.
What’s more, verisimilitude is severely stretched at certain points. Given that Ali is an unaccompanied child migrant, my understanding of Social Services is that he would not have been placed in a tower block on his own without any form of adult supervision for days on end. That doesn’t strike me as being credible. Moreover, he doesn’t appear to be in school, even though he himself wonders why the children on the estate are not in school.
The story includes some examples of what one must assume is a made-up language, to give the reader a sense of Ali’s foreignness. Perhaps some actual examples of Ali’s native tongue might have been more appropriate here.
Despite the fact it opens with a flashback to Ali’s war-torn country, the problem with beginning with a flashback is that you have nothing to flashback from. A better idea would have been to begin with the noises of the fireworks on bonfire night and then follow that with a flashback, showing how the character is traumatised because the loud explosions remind him of his war-ravaged country.
Although the narrator speaks in broken English, he has no problem with using words like “sparkler” or “stairwell”. A better approach here – in order to engage the reader – would have been to introduce a sense of defamiliarisation. Rather than the narrator describe how the small boy hands him a sparkler, have Ali refer to it instead as a “thin metal stick” and how it “catches fire”.
Throughout the story, Hogan eschews the use of semi colons, colons and dashes, relying exclusively on commas and full stops. Whether this is a deliberate stylistic choice, or instead a lack of confidence in their use is not clear, though I suspect the latter to be the case.
Sentences often comprise simple clauses linked by commas, when the grammatically correct form would be to separate these independent clauses via the use of semi colons, or even full stops. For instance: “I cry, I can taste the salt in my mouth, the sheets are wet.” After a while these short, declarative sentences lead to a feeling of sameness, because they lack any variety.
There are also numerous examples of weak repetition. “I look up at the clock and then look around to see if there is anyone looking at me.” This is the kind of thing that should have been picked up during revision and the editing process. Once again, it’s a sign of the author’s limited writing ability.
A paucity of figurative language is another feature of this story. Use of symbol, metaphor or simile is essentially non-existent. Without this kind of ornamentation, the language feels flat and unimaginative, each sentence having the same sort of emotional weight as the one that went before. It doesn’t take long for this kind of style to become tedious in the extreme.
I hope these observations have given an insight into the problems that can arise when writing a short story, and how to avoid them. Although “Go Home!” shows promise, there are a number of areas where it is obviously lacking. If you’re in the business of writing short stories, there’s always room for improvement.