Anatomy of a Story

by Jack Lehman 

     How much detail should a writer include, what makes dialogue interesting, should there be a twist at the end of a short story? The answer to these questions is that you need to go deeper than these stylistic matters. Back to the underlying reason this is a story that has to be told.

     “I’m not Bill, I’m Roland, his son.”

     “I’m sorry I didn’t realize how much you’ve grown since I last saw you. I’m John, Bill’s uncle. You look a lot like your dad.”

     “He’s around here someplace, doing something for the wedding.”

     “Good, good. I drove in from Wisconsin for this and…well it’s been a while since I’ve seen any member’s of my brother’s, your grandfather’s, family.”

     “You were my grandpa’s brother?”

     “Yes, still am. I mean he’s no longer alive, but I am. I just haven’t seen anyone for a while, being out of town and all, like I said.”

     And I knew that was the case for Bill as well. He lived in Cleveland where he was a fire fighter. Ironically, his was the last family wedding I had attended. My daughter and I had driven to it from Madison, Wisconsin, and stopped off in Ann Arbor on the way. I had gone to graduate school there and she was considering doing her post graduate work at the University of Michigan as well. Now Bill and his wife had been divorced for many years and his two children lived with their mother.

     That was the curious thing about weddings. We go to them to be inspired, to praise everlasting love between a man and a woman. But what about second marriages like this one of my niece I was now attending in the forest preserve of a Chicago suburb on a late Friday afternoon in June? As I was to look at the front row of chairs set up by the gazebo for our side of the family, I could see that most who were sitting there were divorced, separated or the children of parents no longer together. Fortunately most of them had little tasks to perform: take care of the rings, make sure the place cards on the dinner tables inside were correctly assigned, practice a wedding toast or help the bride get dressed.

     I didn’t see Anne anyplace before the ceremony. I guessed she was preparing for a grand entrance. As to the groom, he was anybody’s guess. There were men in suits gathered at various spots throughout the garden. Any one of them would do.

     OK, what attracts me to this subject? Being uncomfortable about a setting in which everyone seems to know one another and have something to do, except me? That, even more than why people join together and split apart, seems to be the answer. Creating a story gives me control over a situation I didn’t have in real life. But now the characters and scenes are free to lead me beyond. I don’t know where. That is what is exciting to both reader and writer, because in fictionalizing the situation, it is possible some deeper truth may emerge. Curiosity and risk become driving forces.

     I thought about the tall gangling boy who had stood before me, wanting to get free.

He looked like Bill, and Bill (when he came around the corner as we were talking) looked like a younger version of me. My own adult children, as well as my deceased older sister’s sons and daughters, had not been invited, and my second-wife and I had been in the midst of a major disagreement. She’d decided not to come.

     Because I wanted to take pictures, I slipped to the side of the chairs and dutifully, after an interminable wait of electronic keyboard music, captured the big entrance, the rising for prayers led by a friend-of-the-groom’s-family minister, and some quick words by an attractive female judge in requisite full-length robe. Then it was time for the exchanging of vows.

     Anne: “I remember the afternoon at the country club meeting this man who’d been playing tennis with some of my friends.”

     This was nice. Personal, real.  But then, behind the pianist, through the bushes, I saw the face of someone who probably had not been invited—Anne’s former husband.

     “I realized, here is the man I had been looking for all my life, the man I was meant to be married to.”

     There was a loud crack. Like a gun. But it wasn’t a gun, it was thunder. The sky covered over and the world turned ominously black. The judge hurriedly wrapped up the proceedings. Within minutes the bridal party, attendant family and guests, robed judge, friend-of-the-groom’s-family minister and I were scurrying through the rain like a gaggle of geese toward “The Grove” bungalow-like reception hall where a beef and chicken buffet would be served. The ghost of the former husband—real or imagined—had disappeared.

      Plot has moved forward. The setting mirrors the suppressed inner conflict of the narrator. So what? What’s in this for me? the reader asks. Or for me, I, as writer, also wonder. Why continue. But discovery in a short story is a vertical rather than horizontal thing. We don’t find something new, but rather how elements of the story that didn’t seem to be connected at first, now start to fit together.  

     It was only when I saw the wife of my brother, Ted, and her sister that I suddenly knew. The sister, was grey, overweight and bent. Talking too much, I could tell even from a distance. I had known her first when we were both sixteen. She had dark eyes and had had black Italian hair she wore in a Bobbie cut. She’d been popular— active in school and church activities—and I, well I was a rather introverted nerd. But that connection wasn’t what struck me. It was that my brother was not there. Often we invoke those who have passed on, as if they were present in some way. Anne had about her father when I went through the reception line and talked to her. But what really surprised me was when Anne’s sister, Sarah, introduced me to her youngest daughter.

     “This is your grandpa’s brother, my uncle. Uncle John.” And then to me, “Oh, I forget she was born after Dad died. She never knew him.”

     There is a wonderful photograph I remember of Ted, his wife and all of all his young children, striding toward the camera, like the Kennedy’s or something. Then he had died. Ten years earlier than even he had expected.

     Suddenly I was my brother returning. A stranger. And life had moved on.




7 thoughts on “SAMPLE SHORT STORY

  1. What lovely writing… I love that the story blossomed so clearly and cleverly through dialogue…

    But I pulled up short … or rather it shortchanged me before too long. Would my comment be useful to you? I read stories in a right brain way.. loving it as U go, but I would have had to go back to analyze and memorize the different characters and what had happened and was happening.

    In the end, the number of characters in building the backstory lost me before it captivated.


  2. I agree. I had to go back and figure out who was who and who you were talking about……I hate that. I have to then ask myself….now what where was the story going?

  3. I’ve been a long time trying to catch up, but I, too, had trouble getting the cast of characters organized–in fact, I’m not certain I have. Would a little more detail in the backstory have been useful?
    I’ve just finished reading Updike’s last collection of short stories that seem to deal with similar themes. There is none quite as short as this. By the time the revealing moment arrives, the reader has been given a lot more both concrete and psychological information about the central character.
    I loved the significant details, but felt faintly cheated by their scarcity.

  4. Loved the story and underlying themes ( issues in today’s pop psych parlance as this story goes :-). However, there were too many characters for me as well. As an aside though, the number of people i.e. relatives did serve a purpose, because that is really how it is at family gatherings when you see people you are supposed to know and can’t remember them, or if they are “once or twice removed.”!

    1. Thanks, Linda. As a rule I try to keep short stories to two or three characers and three scenes. In this case I wanted the reader to feel a little overwhelmed, as I was at the event this is based upon. But I see from your response and others, there is a price to pay. Maybe a better writer could pull it off, but I do think trying is what makes us advance to that “better writer” status, even when we fail. John

  5. Yes, we are all trying to be “better writers”, and readers need to work on being “better readers”, so don’t be so hard on yourself ( You have been on your writing journey much longer than I, as you can well remember. 🙂

    The story definitely conveys overwhelmed emotions, and when you look at it like a poet, the “crowd” of relatives actually functions as a collective “one”, so there are really only two characters after all. A crowd of people metaphorically reflects the “crowd” of emotions. (The only problem is the “distraction” of trying to figure out how each person is related to the narrrator.)

    This is a great experiment, and I think you have basically pulled it off. Sometimes a story has to sit a bit in the reader’s consciousness for the full effect to seep in…must come from your poetic side. And, as Emily D. said “tell it slant” which you have done. Suggestion: Think of it as a poem and “tinker” a bit…an extra line of dialogue, extra phrase, one more paragraph, but I wouldn’t make it much longer or it will lose its effect. Or just go with the fact that you have put expectations on the reader and they need to pay attention! 🙂


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