Saturday, April 16, 2022

What Ray Bradbury Didn’t Teach You About Short Stories (and Why)


(I wrote this piece for the Ray Bradbury course thrown to me mid-semester by circumstances outside my control. They seem to be an excellent bunch of students but have some trouble in discussing the short stories on the reading list – and in writing first drafts of stories allegedly “inspired” by Bradbury’s works. It occurred to me that most of the students hadn’t a clue to what short stories are, and maybe someone had better tell them before they get any further in this life. Besides, this isn’t a lit class but a “Craft and Process Seminar,” whatever that is. What’s more “Craft and Process” than learning what a short story is? Therefore… )


“The purpose of trial and error, imitations and experiments, constant slaving through uncertainty and despair is twofold: to acquire merciless self-discipline; to acquire conscious story patterns and reduce them to unconscious practice. I’ve often said that you become a writer when you think story, not about a story.”

– Alfred Bester, introduction to “Time is the Traitor” in Starlight: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester (1976)


Even in his book about writing, Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury never answered a certain simple, basic question that may have been asked of him a million times: What is a story?

If anyone knew the answer, it was Bradbury. Novels, poems, plays, screenplays, essays notwithstanding, Bradbury is best known as an author of short stories.

I don’t think it was a deliberate dodge. Bradbury knew so well what stories were, he may have taken for granted that everyone else knows what a story is. 

And the reason for that, I suspect, is this: Bradbury read so many stories, and read so extensively, that he thought in stories, i.e. his thoughts naturally took story-shaped ideas. It wasn’t necessarily some sort of gift or talent. You have to work at it.

Many people starting out as writers are not as familiar with short stories. They may have read a few in school, but much of what takes up their self-motivated reading are novels. Novels, of course, are stories too, but they can take a number of twists and turns and explore sidelines; or they can be stacks of stories, one atop the other; or interwoven stories of many characters in many places at many times.

I’ve spent a good part of my life teaching folks about short stories. I’ve written a lot about it, too. And I’ve directed aspiring writers to a lot of what has been written about short stories by others. It’s what I do.

There’s no need to bore you with a lot of that at this time, or maybe at any time, granted you have an intrinsic sense of what makes one batch of pages a story and another batch of X-number of pages of prose fiction – a fragment, a scene, a chapter, but not a story.

Within the traditions of storytelling, it’s simple enough to distinguish five basics elements (I don't call them parts, though many others do) you will find in every story. Or, if you don’t find them in a story, it’s because the author has made their presence felt by their absence, or through some other clever redistribution of their weight upon the story as a whole. You’ve got to have these elements or you don’t have a story. And it doesn't matter how these elements appear, in what structure they may be used. Some teachers talk about “three-act structure,” but you don’t need three acts to tell a story, as long as the story has all the elements. The story doesn’t even have to look like a story: it can disguise itself in an imitation of another form, like a text message, or a journal entry, or a piece of journalism. It can look like a postcard, but if it has all the elements, it’s a story.

What are those elements? The answers will seem obvious, but think about them for a moment. Very often, beginning writers mistake elements or discard them, or consider one or the other of them unnecessary, or covered elsewhere.

First, one needs a character/protagonist. The person (even if the person is an object, or sometimes a collective) is who the story is about. The focus upon this character helps shape what the story is about.

Second, the character has to have a sort of defining motivation. Characters can have all sorts of motivations about many things, but there's usually one interest, one desire, one need, that defines the character most specifically, at least for the purposes of this story.

Third, the story has to happen somewhere. The “somewhere” can be described in great detail or it can be sketched out with a minimum of particulars. But even when sketched out, it has to have the feel of a real place, even when the place is completely unreal (Oz, Narnia, Pluto, Hyperborea).

Fourth, the character has to be confronted with . . . stuff!

An opposing force. A nemesis. Something that prevents or obstructs the character’s defining motivation. This can come from outside the character, or from within the character. Ideally, the external force working against the character is a reflection of an inner force that prevents the character from doing what needs to get done.

Fifth, the collision between the character’s defining motivations and the stuff – the forces opposing them – must result in a significant outcome. It can and is often called the resolution. It can be a victory or a defeat. It can be a standoff. It can be subtle or it can come in accompanied by a brass band and twelve sticks of dynamite. No matter how the outcome is reached, it needs to result in a change. The change may be in the character’s self, or it may be in our perception of the character. If we can’t answer the question “What changes?” by the end of the story, either something’s missing in the story or in our reading of the story.

That’s pretty much it. Sounds easy, but often the most difficult things to do are also the simplest.

And it works. Try it. Think over any of the Bradbury stories you’ve read so far in this class. You'll find all these elements there. Try it with the stories we’ll be reading next. After you’ve read the story, ask yourself: “Who’s story is this?” “What do they want?” “Where is this happening?” “What gets in the way?” “How does it all work out?”

I trust you’ll find the answers in any story (even in bad stories sometimes), by Bradbury or by any other author you choose to read. And you’ll also discover that the elements are most interesting when they also are most cleverly hidden and difficult to discern.

And once you have seen how these elements work in the stories you read, it’s possible that you can more readily apply them to the stories you write as well.


Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Two-way Street

The other night I awoke from a dream and found myself compelled to write down some thoughts that floated in my head as sort of the after-burn of dreaming. And that was about what “fantasy”  of the literary type – teaches us. 

Last night, the thoughts preceded the dream, and had to do with science fiction. 

I was reading a manuscript a former student asked me to read for her and comment on. I was no more than a few pages into it when I found myself stymied. It was written about a future world someone might have written about in the 1940s, where, along with humans, there were two kinds of humanoid robots. And it seemed so “retro” that I had to write to the author before I could go any further. I wanted to explain that the conversation about artificial intelligence had progressed a great deal in the seventy-plus years since Isaac Asimov started kicking around ideas about robots.  

There were many presumptions made about “intelligence” and “human behavior” and “self-awareness” and “autonomy” in those days. In a way, we know a lot more about such things, but in another way, we know much less – and in this I’m using the word “know” in a somewhat sloppy way. It’s not so much what we know as what we presume to know.  

In other words, perhaps, we define the problem in such a way as to arrive at a simple solution. It’s not about the “solution,” so to speak, but the definition. If the definition is off, the solution doesn’t really “solve” anything. 

It brought me back to my reading of Louis H. Sullivan’s The Autobiography of an Idea, published the year of his death in 1924. 


He [Sullivan himself, writing about himself in the third person a la Henry Adams] had worked out a theory that every problem contains and suggests its own solution. That a postulate which does not contain and suggest its own solution is not in any sense a problem, but a misstatement of fact or an incomplete one. He had reached a conviction that this formula is universal in its nature and in application. ... if one wished to solve the problem of man's nature, he must seek the solution within man himself. ... 


When the notion of humanity sitting at the top of the Great Chain of Being was considered indisputable, it was easier for our ancestors to figure out their priorities. Today, we’re not only uncertain of our position on the chain, but whether or not the chain exists at all. 

The more we know, the more we sense how much more there is to know. The more knowledge we gain, the more we understand how much of our universe is perhaps unknowable – at least in the immediate future. 

And I found myself thinking: the important thing in science fiction is not what we know, but what we don’t know. That’s what makes it fun and thrilling and fascinating – discovering the limits of what we know and speculating upon all that we don’t. 

And then I went to sleep. 

And then I dreamed about the house where I grew up. 

Except that it wasn’t the house where I grew up, not physically. It looked older, bigger. But it did have one thing my real house had: a crawlspace. 

And in the crawlspace I discovered that about a dozen college students had snuck in and were living there. They had fashioned their own little cubicles, and their own cubby spaces where they stored their books and laptops and clothing. They had their own sleeping bags and lights. It was all a very neat arrangement. But once I discovered it I had to figure out if I should allow them to live there or throw them out. After all, they were living there without permission of anyone. 

But they were living there because, of course, they had no money. And I could understand that. So I decided that I would let them live there and, if they ever found themselves with a little money to spare, to make a “donation.” 

Unfortunately, the house wasn’t mine. And eventually my brother arrived. And it was understood that he had power of attorney over the “estate,” such as it was, and would throw the students out or call the police on them.  

I awoke before any such eviction occurred. I felt bad about the students and what might happen to them. I hoped they would find another crawlspace somewhere.  

But I felt good about my decision not to evict them. Were it my decision to make, they could have stayed as long as they wanted. 

There was all sorts of other stuff happening in the dream. My parents were there, though dead – their presence was in every room. Pam ordered groceries, and two African immigrants who delivered them were waiting for Pam to fold up the boxes so they could be used for the next delivery. And I had an amusing exchange with a gentleman from Goodwill when I discovered that the uniform shirt he was wearing was exactly the same make as the one I was wearing. I have no idea how this all may have fit with the alleged “big thought” I went to sleep with: Science Fiction is not about what we know, but what we don’t know. 

Maybe there isn’t a connection, but I suspect there is. 

Suspect, but don’t know. 

And somehow, for some reason, I’m perfectly okay with that.


Friday, December 31, 2021

It Took All Year to Write this Post... and One Night

 I awoke from a very strange dream early this morning and, instead of my usual m.o. of saying, when a thought comes to me, “I should write that down,” and then turning over and going back to sleep, this time I actually wrote it down: 

What fantasy teaches us –  

We are taught that what is true and what is real are synonymous. 

And we are taught that believing and knowing are the same thing. 

What fantasy teaches us is that what is real is often not true, and what is true is often not real. 

And what we believe is often not what we know, and what we know is often not what we believe. 

And that is why so many hate fantasy. 

Not because it’s an “escape,” but an acknowledgment of our contradictions. 

And with that knowledge, whether we’re free or imprisoned, we can become truly dangerous. 

Fantasy can, or at least may, give someone not only the power to recognize the words “true,” “real,” “believe,’ “know,” but to change them. 

... And then I went back to sleep.  

It’s been a strange year for everyone, but not “strange” for everyone in the same way. Every journey has been a little (or a lot) different.  

For me, the challenges have been somewhat personal. I’ve found myself in a position that I wouldn’t have imagined a few years ago, but one I would have hoped for a decade or so back.  

I’m writing, though not as much writing fiction as I’d like. 

I’m teaching, though not necessarily the subjects I’d imagined I’d be teaching. Still, the subjects are in the neighborhood of my “area of expertise,” as some colleague might call it. “Foundations in Creative Writing”  I’m supposed to know about them. “English Authors from Beowulf to Blake” – would not have been surprising in grad school, but fifty years ago if you had told me I would be teaching Chaucer, Marlowe, and Pope, I would have laughed. When it came to literature, I cared little about what was written yesterday. I wanted to read what was being written today. I wanted to read what was being written tomorrow. My journey through literature has been a backward progression.  

The one that really had me – and still does – perplexed is the Fantasy Writing Workshop. I’ve known and read fantasy fiction for years.  

But I can’t say I know what it is. 

The literary categorical definitions have been little help. The one quote that has really helped was from Gene Wolfe, who said something along the lines (too lazy to look it up now) that it is the one thing in the universe that is bigger than the universe. There is more going on than “primary” and “secondary” worlds, with respectful apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien.  

What is primary to some is secondary to others, and vice versa. There are times when it seems that the primary world is merely an extension, or an appendix, of the secondary. 

I know many of my students want merely to write medieval idylls with dragons, elves, and fairies, but I can’t help feeling there’s more to this. 

Some of that feeling may be personally driven. For the past couple of years I’ve been watching my mother, now 92, descending into dementia. And I believe part of the reason why it’s been so difficult for me to watch her descent is because, for her, all her life, the lines between primary and secondary worlds never really existed. What she believed to be true and real was always incredibly flexible.  

It wasn’t that she was “merely” a liar, although she lied. It wasn’t that she rearranged facts for the convenience of the immediate circumstance – that's just part of it. It wasn’t that she chose a “make believe” world at times over the “real” one. I think, honestly, that she couldn’t tell the difference between the make believe world and the real one. 

Mentally ill? Not entirely. Not necessarily. I think millions of people do much the same thing. The only difference may be in degree. Some people are just good at it. 

I may be one of them. After all, I am my mother’s son, along with being my father’s son. 

Funny. Both of them excoriated literary fantasy to some degree. And yet both them lived intensely interior fantasies. Perhaps that is their legacy to me. And it may be why the traditional definitions of fantasy have left me cold. Something’s incomplete about them. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. 

And perhaps that’s where the dream came from – the dream that left me awake at 4:45 in the morning with those words in my head. It’s taken me a year, maybe two years, to figure them out somewhere in some part of my conscious or unconscious. 

For a large part of my life, I have felt that my life was a long, sloppy, unfortunate accident. I was the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. I was a “rough draft” of a human being that it would have been better to erase and start all over again, were the laws of the land not written to prevent such corrections. 

I’m beginning to think that maybe the accident was not so unfortunate after all. Even more – that it may not be an accident after all. 

That’s something new for me. And it may be that the twists and turns of our current pandemic have played a role in getting me in that frame of mind. 

I’m not saying pandemics are good, but it’s perhaps possible that not all of their outcomes are bad. 

Let’s see what the next dream tells me. 

By the way, Happy New Year.