Story v Style - Debbie Bennett
I see a lot of posts on social media about whether to write in first person or third person, if a story should be in past or present tense or if it’s OK to use one or more of the above at the same time. I’m not sure why anybody thinks they need permission to do anything. You can do what you like how you like and when you like – although in my opinion it does help to know what the rules actually are, so that you can break them properly and carefully, as opposed to driving a tank through them and leaving the poor little rules squealing on the ground in pain …
I find with novels, I’m best using third person past tense. I can’t really sustain anything else for the length and depth of writing that a novel really needs. I have a lot of admiration for writers who can gallop along in first person without tying themselves up in knots, but I can’t do it. I like to get up close and personal with my characters, but they are not me and writing first person seems odd to me in anything longer than a short story.
But short stories are a different matter. I’ve been writing a lot more of them in recent years and I like to play with a short story and experiment with different styles. I’ve done chatty – with lots of asides to the reader – The Leaving of Liverpool – and I’ve done the unreliable narrator in I Remember Everything; I’m still not sure if he was a little crazy because of the creatures, or if the creatures were an effect of the craziness. I like that ambiguity. I’ve done first person and third person (never quite managed second, I confess) and I’ll flip tense quite happily mid-paragraph if it suits me. The difference is that I know exactly what I’m doing and why I’m doing it and the effect it will achieve.
I also like to use the structure of a story to reflect the content and drive the narrative. I once wrote a story as a countdown – Ten to Nine – ten scenes each starting with a number. Five cars in front at the traffic lights. Two children she loved very much. Get the idea? With each scene shorter than the previous one, it focused the story right down to the final passage where we got the one. Or the story where I wanted nine scenes to reflect nine months/days of a pregnancy – The Fairest of Them All.
The advantage of a short story of course is it doesn’t have to be sustainable for more than a few thousand words. It’s a snippet, a view into another world and it doesn’t matter that I have no idea what happened before or even what happen next. The world-building is irrelevant because it’s only the here and the now that matters, and if that here-and-now makes you believe in my character, then it’s worked. I’m finishing up a short right now that has more intentional ambiguity in that you never quite know what it is you are reading or where it is set – my character has no past and no future, but that’s OK because I only care about her now.
You can do things in a short that you’d never dare in a novel. Moira is about a split second when a middle-aged childless woman thinks of snatching a toddler from a shop. It’s more of a chicken wing than an entire KFC dinner – a tiny bite of an idea that works in 1200 words but would never survive anything longer without disappearing into a morass of judgements, mental health and child neglect. And some of my novels are pretty dark, so I know about this stuff! But the short format keeps it light and it works.
My shorts have appeared in a variety of places from Bella magazine to numerous in-print and online anthologies and my own collection. You can check them out via my Amazon author page.