I don’t why it shocked me, but LinkedIn, in its inimical wisdom, congratulated me on working at Oakton Community College for twenty-three years. Maybe it’s because Oakton has never congratulated me for hanging around so long. I thought I was working undercover.
Never mind. LinkedIn reminded me, and ever since I’ve been trying to figure out what the hell I’ve been doing all these years.
Way back, in 1991, I talked a lot. I still do, but to somewhat different ends. I was young(er), I was nervous. I took a lot of notes. I took more notes as a teacher than I ever did as a student. I wanted to make sure Iwasn’t missing anything important that I thought students should know.
All students wanted to know, and I can’t blame them, was whether or not their stories were any good. After a few terms, I switched the course emphasis much more strongly on reading and critiquing students’ work, with exercises thrown in to help students having trouble finding some to write about or to demonstrate a point about stories and the writing process.
So, what happened to the notes?
Well, I kept adding to them – or cutting them, as I saw fit – typing them up (and back in the day that was typing typing), copying them and handing them out to students as my “hefty package of notes.” The stated intention: “These notes are what I would say if I had more time (and a better sense of organization) in class. They are here for you to ignore at your leisure, in your own free time.”
At one time I considered expanding these notes into a book but, seriously, does the world need another book on short story writing? I also say, right off the bat: There is nothing here you won’t find in other books and in articles in all the writer’s magazines. You will certainly find much of it in the recommended reading list at the end of these notes. The truth is that we’re all pretty much saying the same thing when it comes to the basics of fiction writing; we just find different ways of saying it, or emphasize some points over others.
I’ve been handing out these notes, adding to them and fiddling with them for so long I no longer know how much of this stuff I believe – how much it reflects what I think now or if it reflects the much-younger writer-turned-teacher who first tried to figure out what it was he was doing when he sat down in front of a keyboard and let his fingers dance.
On the outside chance that all this work may prove helpful to someone out there not fortunate enough to be able to take my course—if “fortunate” is the right word – I’ll be posting it here in a number of sections, along with the recommended reading list, some exercises and a few other handouts that have become part of the course over the years. Maybe you can tell me if I know what the hell I’m talking about.
One: Overview of the short story. Making “connections”
There are as many different ways to teach a “creative” writing course as there are people to teach them. Many are taught as “workshops,” where students bring their work in each week to be discussed and critiqued. Valuable as this experience is, it’s possible to get through such a course without ever covering certain “basics” of short story writing. It’s also possible that in that atmosphere some less experienced students will be left out in the cold in what sometimes can be a highly competitive atmosphere.
For that reason, I’ve come up with this collection of notes on the topic of short story writing. Class time is precious. The course is six (once eight) weeks long, one session a week of little more than two hours each. Although I try to address the basic topics of each session in class, I try (try, mind you) to keep my lectures short, and if I could get rid of them altogether, I would. These notes are what I would say if I had more time (and a better sense of organization) in class. They are here for you to ignore at your leisure, in your own free time. This will leave us the majority of class time for exercises and workshops.
There is nothing here you won’t find in other books and in articles in all the writer’s magazines. You will certainly find much of it in the recommended reading list at the end of these notes. The truth is that we’re all pretty much saying the same thing when it comes to the basics of fiction writing; we just find different ways of saying it, or emphasize some points over others. Why you will find whole shelves of these sorts of books at your local bookstore is because what’s easier to understand for one person when it’s said by John Gardner, someone else will understand better when stated by Eudora Welty (and Anne Lamott will say it funnier).
What I will endeavor not to do is to discuss short stories solely in terms of “literature.” Matters of literature are for critics and students of literature to discuss, not for writers (at least while they’re writing). I don’t believe writers write literature – they write stories, novels, plays, poems, essays and the like. “Literature” is something invoked by decree, sometimes long after a work is written. It’s often arbitrarily invoked too, and subject to change with fashion. Nothing kills a writer faster than writing to fashion.
Stories are what matter, whether they are pronounced great works of literature or merely considered a “good read.” You’ve got to have stories. And writing, for the purposes of this course, is how you get them. I hope we’re all here because, for one reason or another, we enjoy writing (or at least enjoy having written). “To better enjoy what we write and write better what we enjoy” could be the stated goal of this course.
So, after all this preface, can I answer the million-dollar question: what is a short story?
The short answer is: sort of. The longer answer follows.
The simplest definition of the short story I’ve ever heard is one that calls it “A work of prose fiction 7,500 words or less.”
That covers the “short” part. Now what about “story”?
“A work of prose fiction” isn’t necessarily a story. Some contemporary authors refer to their short works as “fictions” which, for better or worse, frees them from worrying over the question of what is a story and if they’ve written one or not.
Anything too sharply defined in the creative fields is usually dead or at least embalmed. The wonderful thing about stories is that they transcend their definition.
Aristotle fashioned a simple list of elements for telling a story: you need a beginning, a middle and an end. Obvious as that seems, it underscores the importance of sequence and time in the making of stories. They have to begin sometime and they have to end sometime. A writer chooses the boundary points and fashions the story accordingly. He or she specifies, selects, focuses on one event or sequence of events, distinct from the rest of multivaried experience – distinct from the rest of the universe as a whole.
A story also has to happen to someone – a central character, sometimes to more than one character, but in a short story it most often happens to one person. “Person,” too, in case the central character isn’t a human being – you still write about the character in the same way you would write about a human (if this sounds a little odd, remember that Jack London’s stories often had dogs as central characters. In stories for children, animals are often central characters, like Winnie the Pooh, but they’re always treated like people).
From here, look at the first sentence in the above paragraph: “A story also has to happen . . .” Now, what do we mean by “happen”?
What it means, for many writers who have tried to break down the essential elements of the short story, is this: the central character in a short story can’t be “static.” He or she has to be moving toward a goal. The goal may be internal or external. It could be making a million dollars or it could be finding inner peace. It could be seeking revenge or it could be learning to cope with a loss. In any case, if you’ve got a character for whom everything is fine, for whom nothing has to change and nothing more is needed – then you’ve got the wrong character.
The character can be aware of the goal or completely oblivious to it. If the latter, the author should make us aware of the goal, directly or indirectly.
But even a character who has everything and is totally satisfied can run into trouble: remember Job. Also, a character who has a goal, is “motivated” to do something, and does it without a hitch is not very interesting to read about. Specifically or generally, internally or externally, in a story, a character with a goal usually runs into an obstacle.
Aristotle mentioned this matter of the motivated character running into an obstacle as well. He called it energeia, which we can think of today as “action,” a kind of friction created by pitting the central character against the “plot” (In this context, we can think of a plot as a structure that consists partially or entirely of the obstacle to the motivated character’s goal. More on plots later). Anything that doesn’t contribute to that relationship between plot and character, Aristotle considered extraneous. For him, the paradigm of a dramatic work was “Unity of Action.”
Lastly, a story can’t be a story without a resolution. A resolution in this case doesn’t mean everything is ironed out and all’s well that ends well. A resolution can involve an unhappy ending as easily as a happy one. What’s required of the resolution is that the reader finds out how things turn out.
To go back to one point, many years after Aristotle, Edgar Allan Poe, one of the fathers of the modern short story, replaced the phrase “Unity of Action” with “Unity of Effect.” For Poe, the short story drove home a single point, either intellectual or emotional. Anything that didn’t contribute to this “effect” didn’t belong in the story. Similarly, Anton Chekhov once compared the work of a short story writer to the way Michaelangelo described the process of sculpting: you chip away all the stone that is not the statue. (Note that brevity is important to both Poe and Aristotle. Poe considered the perfect short story one that could be read in a single sitting. Aristotle thought the drama superior to the epic poem because the drama was shorter.)
But what is this “effect”? And, returning to Aristotle, what is this “plot” that helps determine the unity of a story?
Some jokes that we tell or hear told are really little stories, usually leading up to a “punchline.” Is the “effect” of a story something like a punchline?
The Greek word Aristotle used for “plot” has also been translated as “fable.” Fables, folk tales and parables often have “morals” at their conclusions. Might these morals be considered the “effects” of their tales?
John Schultz, one of my writing teachers at Columbia College and the father of the Story Workshop™ teaching method, would often say that a story is “something and something else,” which I finally deciphered as meaning that a story has implications beyond the mere events depicted in the story – the whole is always more than the sum of the parts.
A story is read by someone – a reader. What happens in the story enters that reader’s consciousness, or maybe even his unconsciousness, and in there it resonates with all his or her other experiences.
Macbeth wants power. In fact, he wants to be king. He murders in order to attain power and ultimately he comes to a bad end. That what happens to Macbeth may happen to others is a possible conclusion the reader is left with. The story isn’t just about Macbeth. It could be about many other people the reader has encountered.
A story is “something and something else”: that is, it’s about itself and it’s about all those other things it evokes in the reader’s imagination.
Here’s another definition offered in a 1994 book by Algis Budrys, the noted science fiction writer, editor and critic:
The most direct way [to tell a story] is to follow a leading story-character through a chronological sequence of happenings. The first happening introduces the character, and the last happening introduces the character seen in some crucially different new light. In between those two ends you place the minimum number of happenings required to achieve this alteration. This string is the “story-line.” The story’s various events, or scenes, occur along this line.
He explains further that the events can be charted through time, like points used to “plot” a line segment on a map or a chart
… so the story-line is often called the “plot,” and the creation of individual scenes, and their placement in relation to all other scenes, is called “plotting.”
Structurally as well, then, the elements of a story should have a meaningful relationship to each other.
The stuffier version of what we’ve gathered here so far might be this: a story is a group of collected or linked events involving a motivated (not inert) central character or characters working against an obstacle to that motivation that ultimately results in a change in the character, the character’s status and/or a change in the reader’s perception of the character.
John Gardner and Algis Budrys, in different places, have also added this observation: “The ending of a story must be, simultaneously, a surprise and inevitable,” so that the reader is surprised at how the story turns out, but also is left feeling that it could have ended no other way.
Like a column of numbers, a story needs to “add up.”
My mother, who worked at the White Castle on Archer and Kedzie for twenty-three years, tells me about the most incredible events and people she used to encounter on her job. She always ends her recollections by saying, “You should write a book about all this.”
It’s her book to write, of course, if she ever wants to. My stumbling in and collecting those recollections would put them at a twice-removed distance for readers. There’s another problem, though, with just collecting interesting events and interesting people: they still have to add up to something.
There are millions of little anecdotes we hear all the time, but are they stories? What are the morals/points/effects of these real-life dramas, considered singly or as a group? It’s great raw material, but the material still has to be shaped to some purpose. Everyone has a life story, but how many of them, as autobiographies, make interesting reading? They’re filled with what people did, but few of them give us any insight into why they did it, or what all this “doing” means in the long run.
There are stories that are “true,” as in a newspaper story, and then there are stories that are “true” even though they are fictional. History is ostensibly based on true events, but the simple accounting of “who did what and when” is exactly what so many schoolchildren consider boring when not supplemented with some details to explain the “how and why.”
Good historians and good fiction writers are after the same kind of truth, the kind that helps us to understand the greater questions of human existence.
Whatever the reason may be, human beings like to trace forms and shapes. Chaos has its moments, but it never stays in fashion for very long.
And stories are some of the forms and shapes that we trace. As one of the characters in Barry Lopez’ Crow and Weasel says, “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
“Write from experience,” the young writer is often counseled, and some writers believe they have to travel around the world to find something to write about. That advice is at best a half-truth. Flannery O’Conner once said that anyone who survives childhood has enough to write about for an entire lifetime.
“Experience” is relative. What’s important is what you do with your experience, and the experience of others for that matter. In writing a story, there may be parts of a story that you can’t know if you were merely a reporter of events. What you often need to do is fill in the things the reporter can’t know, put yourself in someone else’s place, extrapolate on what events might lead to, you need to imagine, based on experience, what simple observation couldn’t tell you.
What you need to be, as a writer, is “a reporter of the imagination.”
Imagination is not separate from experience, but a means to engage your experience.
Tallying up numbers isn’t the same as adding them up. Events that take place in a White Castle at one in the morning are just actions. What a writer has to see is that actions have consequences. In Freshman Writing class you’re often asked to start with a thesis and support it with examples. Much of what a fiction writer does works the other way around: you look at random, seemingly unrelated events and see if they add up to some kind of thesis – or something. An epiphany. A satori.
You look around for connections between things – between “then” and “now,” between this person and that person, between one word and another word, between a private thought and a public utterance. The connections are not always clear and not always what you first presumed.
If you’re looking for stories, that’s one place to start. Think, for example, of something you first did long ago – as a child, perhaps – that you may have done again more recently. What changes do you notice between the two events, in the place and perhaps in yourself?
Or, with an eye to the details, recall several events from the near or distant past, things you observed or experienced, things that may even seem completely dissimilar, then look for any possible connections between them. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once observed that in writing poetry one looks for “the similarities in the dissimilar and the dissimilarities in the similar.”
And when you can’t look for connections look for disconnections – between what one says and what one does, between a person’s nature and his (or hers) surroundings, between means and ends.
The process of inquiring into your memories and experiences is where it all begins. If writing is a means by which we try to make sense of randomness, we have to be able to step back and gain some distance on events, some perspective.
Our posture toward the world changes when we put on the writer’s hat. We change from participants in the world to observers.
And ultimately, from observers we turn into creators. Or as Henry James once pointed out, a writer is a person “upon whom nothing is lost.”
THIS JUST IN:
SATORI IN 2007: The other night I had this thought – most if not all of the stories I’ve read that really work for me have a place, or a “point” or, for lack of a better word, a “BING!” moment (like a little bell goes off). It’s a point on which the story seems to be balanced. If this point were not in the story, it would make no sense, or at least the effect of the story would be considerably less. And the BING! moment may occur at just about anywhere in the story: in the middle, near the ending, the ending itself or in the very first line. One way you can identify the BING! moment: it is the line from which, it seems to the reader, everything in the story has been leading once you get to it, and from which everything in the story proceeds once you’ve read it. It can involve an action, a piece of dialogue or just about anything. Once you’ve identified it, it seems that the story’s whole existence is to present this one BING! moment.
Some kind of exercise
If you have trouble distinguishing what a story is about (and who at one time or another hasn’t?), a simple version of what I’ve been trying to describe can be broken down into about seven statements. Your basic short story will contain some version or another of each of these:
1. There once was a man (or woman) … (you can add a place to suit the situation)
2. … who wanted to be king (or queen) …
3. … but whose older brother was ahead of him (or her) in line of succession.
4. So he (she) planned to kill his brother.
5. But he failed (or succeeded) …
6. … because …
7. Which only goes to show …