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Author Sangeeta Mahapatra – On writing short stories

Inspiration can come in different ways. One day, many years ago, I was reading P.G.Wodehouse’s The Girl in Blue, when I went bug-eyed over this passage:

It was one of the dullest speeches I ever heard. The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.”

Well, there is nothing like a healthy dose of sarcasm to whip a would-be writer into shape. After that I stuck to brevity like a burr. I thought the best way to test myself was to write short stories. The challenge was whether I could build a story nicely and pack enough suspense in ten pages or less to sustain a reader’s attention from beginning to end? To falter or fail would mean being consigned to the class of the Agee woman. That I could not countenance. So, I wrote and edited… and edited… and edited. Writers are often asked what inspires them. Our world abounds with people and things to kindle the imagination of a writer but it is this lesson in brevity that helped me to train myself as a writer and separate the good from the guff.

Short stories easily set the benchmark here. Novels give writers the time to fill in the details; for short stories, a writer has to be skillful enough to make the readers imagine the details. Put simply, for novels, the canvas is the writer and for short stories, it is the reader.

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My journey of writing began with reading short stories. There is no better apprenticeship than learning from the greats. I feasted on a smorgasbord of different literary styles and genres. The clever plot twists of O. Henry, the sharp satire of Saki, the dark fantasy of Guy de Maupassant, the mordant wit of Dorothy Parker, the macabre imaginings of Roald Dahl, the twisted tales of Edgar Allan Poe, the engaging plots of Somerset Maugham, the dolorous strain of Vladimir Nabokov, the surrealism of Franz Kafka,  the impressionism of Anton Chekov, the minimalism of Katherine Mansfield, the lyricism of Rabindranath Tagore, the supernatural realm of Satyajit Ray, the social satire of R.K. Narayan, the political rationalism of Munshi Premchand  – from the emotive to the inventive to the didactic- I quaffed them all. Some stories stood out for their originality like Agatha Christie’s Philomel Cottage, James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Daphne Du Maurier’s The Blue Lenses, and Roald Dahl’s William and Mary, and some for their emotional depth, like Tagore’s The Kabuliwallah and The Castaway and O.Henry’s The Last Leaf.

From suspense-driven plots to sententious explorations of life, most short stories pay homage to the craft of simple and enjoyable storytelling.

“The creative currency of short stories is that while they may be short, they pack a punch regardless of the genre”.

I am yet to explore the short stories written by contemporary Indian writers and I cannot wait to read their books. As legatees of a rich and diverse literary tradition, I am sure they will take this creative enterprise forward- to a place of distinction where our language and stories are feted as the best the world has to offer. But before thinking of generating belletristic literature, we must get the barebones of storytelling right.

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When I wrote my collection of suspense and horror stories, Wreath and Other Stories, it was not just about coming out with original, inventive plots with twist-in-the-tail endings but also being crisp and grammatically sound.  Checking my grammar and maintaining the balance between pace and description are the first two priorities in my “How to write a short story” list. Once these are sorted, the narrative will flow seamlessly.

As a reader and an editor, I have a small request to make to writers: please go light on the adjectives and avoid the verbal pyro-techniques. This does not mean dumbing down your vocabulary but using the correct words. Don’t be long-winded. Focus on the story.

The reader in me informs the writer in me and so, getting the ending of the story right is very important- remember this is your final feeler to the reader- your last chance of making an impression. Try to showcase your imaginative side and surprise your readers. Finally, once the point of the story is conveyed, it is best to stop.



Sangeeta Mahapatra
Sangeeta Mahapatra is the executive editor of a national business magazine. She has a doctoral degree in International Relations and has previously worked as a research fellow specializing in Terrorism Studies. She is currently based in Kolkata, India, working on a book on the counter-terrorism strategies of India, Israel, and the United States of India. In 1999, her first book of short stories, Miasma, was published by Chowringhee Prakashini Press, Kolkata. Wreath and Other Stories is her second collection of short stories.

2 thoughts on “Author Sangeeta Mahapatra – On writing short stories

  1. “As a reader and an editor, I have a small request to make to writers: please go light on the adjectives and avoid the verbal pyro-techniques. This does not mean dumbing down your vocabulary but using the correct words. Don’t be long-winded. Focus on the story.” Well this article itself is too verbose. If it could have coveyed the message in simple words I would have been happier

  2. Thanks for the feedback but I am sorry I don’t think my writing is verbose. In fact, I believe a good writer should have a rich vocabulary so that the right words are used at the right places. As I wrote in my article, ” This does not mean dumbing down your vocabulary but using the correct words.”

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