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Long Musings on Short Stories

Max Griffin

I love reading short stories. I've been scared by The Telltale Heart, uplifted by Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, and amused by The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County. I read short stories every chance I get. Good and bad, funny and sad, I can't get enough short fiction. It's also my favorite medium when I write. I enjoy being able to produce a complete tale in less than 10,000 words, where I can wrap everything up in a neat little package. The fun of a short story comes from its brevity. That's also what makes it difficult to create. But if it were easy, it wouldn't be nearly as satisfying.

I've read and critiqued so many short stories by beginning authors that I decided to summarize some of my reflections on the craft of short fiction. Every author will find their own voice, and not every lesson I've struggled to learn will apply equally to every story or to every author. In real life, I'm a mathematician. Proving theorems is hard work, too, just like writing, but at least mathematics proceeds from agreed-upon axioms and follows a logical set of rules. Writing is an art, not a science, and doesn't follow rigid, logical rules. There are, however, conventions that authors have learned, by hard experience, over the years. A writer who knows when to break with convention can transform a routine story into a powerful work of art. But you have to know what the conventions are before you decide to break them. Picasso first mastered academic realism before moving to more abstract Symbolist forms. Beginning authors would likewise do well to understand the principles of narrative and style deduced by past masters of the short story.

Short fiction has been around almost since the dawn of history. Everyone has at least heard of ancient myths and fables, even if they have never read Homer, Virgil, or Aesop. Short stories, however, are a fairly recent innovation as a literary form. Starting in the early 19th century, this new genre emerged with innovative works by such authors as Nikolai Gogol, the Brothers Grimm, Washington Irving, and Nathanial Hawthorne. Edgar Allen Poe built a good part of his literary reputation on this new form, and was its most discerning early critic. Starting with his review of Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales (see Poe developed a theory of the short story that is still applicable today.

Poe felt that the most important single artistic goal of a short story was to present a unified experience for the reader, either in effect or impression. From this simple premise, he outlined a number of conclusions that can help authors construct effective short fiction. Poe's view of the short story anticipated the modern theory of story-telling, articulated most clearly by John Gardner in his book The Art of Fiction. Gardner explains fiction as a guided dream, in which the author leads the readers through the events -- the author and the reader become partners in creating the fictional universe. In doing this, the author engages the readers as active participants so that they imagine the story along with the author. Things that distract the reader from this dream-like state, things that "take the reader out of the story," are thus counterproductive to the primary artistic goal. If one combines Poe's concept of the short story providing a unified experience with Gardner's notion of fiction as a guided dream, some simple principles emerge.

I should note that it is the author's job to guide the readers in matters that are important to plot, character, theme, and emotional context. The reader is the author's partner in imagining the other endless details of the story, filling in details from their own experience. By showing the details that are important to the story, the author stimulates the readers' imaginations and encourages the fictive dream.

Point of View. Today, the general rule in all fiction is "one scene, one point of view." Hopping from one character's head to another's is one of the quickest ways to take readers out of your story. On the other hand, staying with one point of view throughout a scene deepens the readers' engagement and increases their sense of intimacy and immediacy. In short stories, head-hopping is even worse, since it detracts from the unified effect that should be author's artistic goal. Thus, a short story should almost always use a single character's point-of-view.

It's certainly true that the omniscient narrator, who stands outside the story, knowing what all the characters sense and think, has a long literary tradition. However, this approach has all but disappeared from modern fiction. Today, about 30% of all fiction uses a first person narrator. The overwhelming majority of the rest uses third person limited. While this is a stylistic fashion, the reasons it has come to dominate fiction are founded on sound principles and long experience. The idea is to immerse the readers in this one character's head and thus to engage the readers' imaginations in an immediate and intimate fashion. The author leads the readers through a fictional dream via the point-of-view character.

In third person limited, the author selects one character to provide the point of view. The author can reveal directly only what that character knows, senses, feels and thinks. The point of view is thus "limited" to that single character--at least for the duration of each scene. The emotional state of other characters, or what they know or feel, must be implied through their words and deeds. The reader infers these things in a holistic fashion, along with the point-of-view character, in the same way we learn such things in real life.

In a novel, of course, there might be many point-of-view characters, but the general rule in modern fiction is, "one point-of-view character per scene." As noted above, this is even more important in short fiction.

Often, authors will need to convey the emotional state of more than one character in a scene. It's tempting to write something like the following.

Mary watched as the door swung open and Pete walked in. She smiled and said hello, while she wondered why he looked so worried. Pete couldn't stand that she smiled at him. "Hello, Mary," he said.

Besides being dreadful writing, this little snippet jumps from Mary's head ("she wondered") to Pete's (he "couldn't stand" that she smiled). Now suppose the whole thing is re-written in Mary's point of view.

Mary turned when the door creaked open. "Pete! It's so nice to see you." A smile tugged her lips upward, but a chill passed through her at the sight of his pale complexion and trembling hands. He glared at her and snapped, "Hello, Mary. What are you smiling about, anyway?"

Now this is all in Mary's head. She turns in response to the sound of the door creaking. The smile "tugs" at her lips, and a chill passes through her at the outward signs of his tension. Then he glares and snaps at her, both things she can sense, so now the reader infers he's angry. His words show that it's her smile that annoys him. The second example conveys the same information as the first, but does it a dramatic rather than narrated form and stays in Mary's point of view.

Show, don't tell. Of course, this is one of the most fundamental rules of all fiction, but it is even more important in short fiction where economy of style is often crucial. It should go without saying that economy of style sometimes means "more is less." Consider this example.

Mary watched as the door swung open. The man walked in. He was about five-foot-five, wearing blue jeans, a red shirt, and glasses. He had a sad expression on his face.

Besides the fact that these sentences thud along like an out-of-tune engine, they constitute the author stopping to recite a set of facts. This recitation takes the reader out of Mary's head and out of the story. Now consider a second example, with even more facts.

The door creaked open, and Mary whirled as a short man scuttled inside. She wrinkled her nose at the gross beer-belly that hung over his grimy blue jeans and the pizza stains on his red T-shirt. His eyes cowered behind horned-rimmed glasses, where gloom puddled in unshed tears.

This gives the same facts, plus several more, but the second example paints a picture and uses more active verbs. By leading with the sound of the door creaking and having Mary whirl, we remind the reader that this is in her point of view. By listing the details that Mary notices -- the grimy jeans, the puddles of gloom, the pizza stains, and the beer belly -- we learn things about both the observed and the observer beyond just a listing of facts. Subjective words like "gross," "cower," and "gloom" remind the reader that it's Mary who is gathering these impressions, reinforcing the point of view.

Note that it's more intimate if the author describes the sensory information directly, rather than filtering it through Mary. For example, it would weaken the image to say something like, "she felt a cold wind blow through the open door," as opposed to "she shivered when a chill wind gusted through the open door."

I would be remiss if I didn't add one of my most frequent observations about beginning writers: overuse of adverbs. Stephen King tells us that the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I'm convinced he's correct. Adverbs are often a shorthand in which the author falls into "telling" rather than "showing." I try to use no adverbs, since otherwise I'd sprinkle them all over the place like fairy dust.

Consider the sentence

"What a fool," he said softly.
Now it's true that "said" is pretty tepid, but the way to pep up this verb is not with an adverb. Instead, we might use a more precise verb:
"What a fool," he murmured.
Even better might be a simile or metaphor that paints a picture.
"What a fool." The words puffed from his lips and fled like smoke in the wind, leaving behind but a memory.
The reader is left to infer that the words were "soft." That little step of inference is one way to draw readers into your story.

Make Every Word Count. Chekhov wrote, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." Don't put something in a short story unless it serves a purpose. Don't spend pages describing a giant marlin unless the reader needs to know those details to understand the story, the theme, or the old man who's roaming the sea searching for the largest catch of his life.

First and Last Sentences. The first sentence is important in any piece of fiction. In my ideal world, the first sentence names the point-of-view character, places that character in time and space, and has him or her doing something. It's even better if the first sentence portends the conflict that the character has to resolve. The last sentence should provide that resolution, make the reader reflect on what just happened, and reinforce the theme of the story. Combining these tasks with "show, don't tell" can make these two sentences some of the most difficult to write. It's worth the effort. The first sentence is what grabs the readers and thrusts them into your fictional universe. The last sentence is what nails the story into the reader's mind.

Here's an example of a not-so-good opening paragraph.

Derek got in his car and headed for downtown. He wore a tight-fitting pair of leather pants and a white t-shirt that showed off his muscles. The county court building sat on a square piece of land in the middle of the city, surrounded by brick storefronts on all sides.

This is a nice, short, declamatory set of sentences. They name the point of view character, have him doing something, describe him, and orient the reader as to location. But they are also the author intruding to tell the reader a set of facts, and thus are "telling" rather than "showing."

Here's an alternative that is has more imagery and reinforces point of view and character.

Derek followed Old US 30 as it wove its way into the center of the town. He circled Jackson Square looking for a place to park and cursed the congested noontime traffic. When a teenager on a skate board zipped in front of him, Derek hit his brakes and honked. The kid gave him the finger before he disappeared into an alley between two grimy, brick storefronts.

Derek glanced at his destination before he squeezed his beat-up Honda into an empty parking space. He thought that that Stalin would have loved the dreary, concrete courthouse that squatted in the middle of the Square. After he fed the meter, he dodged traffic and pushed his way into the lobby.

A buxom security guard lounged next to the metal detector just inside the door. She shoved a plastic bowl at him. "Please put your wallet and any metal objects here, sir." Her eyes widened a bit as her gaze raked over the muscles that coiled under his crisp, white t-shirt.

He grinned and flexed his pectorals for her while he dug items out of his tight-fitting leather pants. "Can you tell me where the County Recorder's office is at?"

"Third floor, on your left. You can't miss it." She seemed to be undressing him with her eyes as he passed through the gate. "Let me know if you need anything else," she purred, licking her lips.

"I'll do that," he hesitated as he read her name off the badge on her uniform. "Gretchen." He swaggered to the elevator and pushed the up button.

This establishes all the basic elements found in the simpler, declamatory opening. It adds many details to help bring the scene to life, and presents everything from the standpoint of what Derek senses. In addition, the things that Derek notices and that happen in this scene reveal little details about him and his surroundings. This, in turn, can reinforce bits of plot, theme, character, or mood. For example, if Derek gives the skateboarder the finger instead of just honking, we learn something about his state of mind. The fact that he's driving a beat-up Honda instead of a Porsche also conveys information about the character and his situation. His interactions with the guard show that he's a bit of a narcissist and perhaps a tease as well.

On the other hand, if your goal is just to get inside the courthouse where Derek does something, maybe the best approach is to start the scene once he's inside. Maybe all this information about the location of the courthouse and its surroundings is irrelevant to the story and should be just omitted. Sometimes deciding what to not include is as important as deciding what to include.

Just for completeness, let me include one more example. Consider the following opening.

The buzzer woke him up. It was dark, and he couldn't think from the sleeping pill he'd taken after the quarrel. His mouth tasted bad. The buzzer sounded again. It was raining outside.
It starts in media res, but that's about all. We don't know who the "him" is in the first sentence, nor do we know where "he" is at. We don't know who "he" quarreled with. Even worse, the sentences are dry and the images tepid. Here's a better opening that has more complete information, and with more vivid prose.
The buzzer's repeated rasp pulled Peter from a numbed sleep. He sat up, peered into the gloom of his studio, and groaned. The sleeping pill he'd taken after his quarrel with Ivan muffled his thoughts like a giant pillow jammed inside his skull. His tongue was a dead sausage that pressed against his mouth and tasted of stale coffee. Whoever was at the front door pressed the buzzer again and drowned out the gentle susurrations of rain drizzling on the roof.
Of course, I'm not saying the second example is perfect. But it's certainly better, and orients the reader in space and time, and reinforces the point of view. The images are more interesting and the prose more vivid. On the other hand, opening with the character waking up is a bit trite.

Limit the Time Frame. While flashbacks and flash-forwards can be effective tools in longer fiction, they often detract from the unity of short fiction. In addition, the transitions from the present to the past and back again are difficult to manage in a short story and can be confusing to the reader. Time breaks also, by definition, interrupt the flow of the narrative and run a grave risk of taking the reader out of the story. In short fiction this latter risk is even greater. Thus, a short story should almost always be told in a linear fashion.

Narrative technique. We all remember the basics of narrative structure from high school: introduction, complication, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action, resolution. While you don't have to follow these conventional structural elements, they have the advantage of being familiar to readers. In a short story, there is less time to introduce and manage a nonconventional narrative. In "The Philosophy of Composition", Poe argued that a short story should end with the climax, with the resolution folded into the action at the high point of the story. In any case, a short story should almost always follow a conventional narrative structure.

Characters. There's not time in short fiction to have a cast of thousands. A short story should have as few characters as possible. The author must draw the characters with a few distinctive traits and reveal their personalities through their words and deeds.

Purpose and Theme. Not every story has a theme, but every story has a purpose. Some stories are just there for fun, some to amuse, some to instruct. As an author, you have to have a clear idea of why you are writing your story and what you want the reader to take away. Don't forget that your story should achieve a unity of effect or impression, so your artistic techniques and your purpose must be congruent.

Focus. The very best short stories almost always have a single point of view, a simple narrative structure, a short time frame, and a single, clear theme. It's tempting to add a sub-plot, or a counterpoint theme, or the quirky second cousin, but if these distract from the unity of effect, don't do it! Instead of a satisfying, unified whole, you will wind up with a hodge-podge. Remember, a short story is not a novel, where you have time to explore characters and themes and plots in great depth. A short story is, above all, short!

Of course, none of the above are absolute. The astute reader will, for example, know that A Rose for Emily has a non-linear time-line, or that dozens of adverbs appear in the first ten pages of The Sun Also Rises. It's not that Faulkner and Hemingway didn't know about Poe's theories, or couldn't follow the conventions. They considered what was best for their story, and made a deliberate choice to discard convention. Since this was a self-conscious decision, they could then adjust other aspects of their narrative to still achieve unity and the overall effect of a guided dream.

The grotesque contortions of Guernica are so powerful precisely because Picasso mastered academic realism. This mastery meant that he understood how to distort realism to achieve his desired effect. Similarly, Faulkner and Hemingway produce powerful works of art because they understand narrative, plot and character and can defy convention to startle and inspire rather than confuse and disengage the reader. Except for a few natural geniuses, one acquires that skill by first understanding and mastering the craft of writing.

If I were as skilled as Faulkner or Hemingway, I could break convention and produce great art too, and with the same regularity as they did. But I'm not that talented, so I apply craft to produce the best stories I can. If I choose to break with convention, it is only after considerable thought. Convention exists because it's what usually works best. It shouldn't be a straight jacket, but neither should one discard it without due deliberation.

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