Short story surgery led by Ugandan writer Dilman Dila, 2013 Storymoja Hay Festival
I guessed that the participants would want to know the tricks of getting shortlisted for prestigious prizes. Our advice to them was, “Don’t write for prizes. Write good stories and submit it to prizes.” In addition to this general advice, I also addressed the simple mistakes and omissions that writers make. For example, many writers don’t consult a style guide and so fail to format their manuscripts using given standards. This can sometimes make it harder to read a story. I’ve heard of editors who discard without reading submissions which are not properly formatted.
“Show Don’t Tell”
When discussing how to write better stories, I put two things top of the list, one being plot and the character arc, and the other being ‘show, don’t tell.’ I believe the best stories are those in which the character goes on a metaphorical journey, in which the character, in one way or the other, changes over the course of a story. However, while developing a character arc is crucial to telling a story, the most engaging stories are those whose characters transform in a subtle manner, not the black and white 180 degree turns so common in film. This brings me to the age-old advice, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ It’s a subject which even experienced writers struggle with. In the workshop, I came up with a list of ways to avoid telling, including: use imagery, avoid ‘thought’ verbs, adverbs and adjectives, describe using the five senses, and above all, don’t overdo it! At the end of the exercise, I learnt invaluable lessons and was able to see loopholes in my own writing. It affirmed to me the great saying that to teach is the best way to learn.
Dilman Dila is a Ugandan writer, film maker and a social activist who believes that stories are an important tool in creating a better world. He started writing fiction at the age of fifteen. His stories have appeared in newspapers, e-zines and book anthologies. His first short film was What Happened in Room 13 (2007). He collaborated with Mira Nair on The Young Ones Who Won’t Stay Behind (2008), won his first major award with The Sound of One Leg Dancing (2011), and in 2013 he released his first narrative feature, The Felistas Fable.