“A short story is something that can be read in an hour and remembered for a lifetime.”—Stephen Vincent Benet
The short story has gone in and out of fashion, but the form itself offers writers a unique opportunity to sharpen their tools. Many of our greatest writers, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Henry James were masters of the short story (as are contemporary writers, such as Joyce Carol Oats, John Updike, Lorrie Moore and Charles Baxter). There may not be the money in a collection of short stories that there is in a novel or autobiography, but they are a form readily publishable in over 4,000 smaller magazines that can provide leverage for eventually getting a longer work published.
And there’s another advantage to the short story. A novel or piece of book length nonfiction is a world complete in itself. A short story is more like a spotlight that shines on a crowd of people. We see what is there but also know there are things to the right and the left of the spotlight that we can’t see directly. These are the events with the characters of the short story that happened before it began or that will happen after it the words on the page are over. As writers we have to plant clues for the reader and we depend upon that reader to create what isn’t expressed. It’s this partnering with an audience in the creative process that is invaluable for other types of writing. They depend upon it, but nowhere (except perhaps with poetry) is it more essential than with the short story. The secret of good writing is to get your reader actively involved doing the work for you. Writing short stories shows us how to do that. And a workshop setting with each of us providing feedback is one of the best ways I know to see how well we are doing this. The words are important, but the story takes place beneath the words, in the imagination of the person who reads it.
I will begin with a series of very brief writing exercises. As we progress we’ll take what we learned from them to the structure of a full piece. This example will provide lessons you can apply to stories you’ve already written or to ones you plan to write. Don’t worry about the content of the exercises or whether or not you write well on demand. The important thing is what you get from doing them. If they trigger some subjects for future work, all the better, but that’s a bonus not necessarily their purpose.
If your goal is to grant wishes to your readers, disturb them or transport them, the short story is a great vehicle, but be warned, the good ones seem easier to execute than they are.
We’ll begin by looking at the source of story energy (the art of engaging readers) and story design (plot concept and its various forms). Then, while writing individually and working on a story together, we’ll apply techniques of scene, point of view, sequence and discovery. Through a close reading of some contemporary examples, we’ll explore how the use of turning point, emotional dynamics and setups/payoffs to effectively order and link scenes so they build to crisis, climax and, ultimately, revelation for the reader.
There are two basic types of short story depending upon whether they are driven predominantly by:
Both utilize scenes. The elements within scenes include:
Dynamics between characters
Motivation for each character
Actions of each character
Then there is the relationship of the scenes themselves to the whole:
Point of View of the narration
Scope: How is a short story different from a novel? For the reader? For the writer?
The first thing is to accept the fact that if a novel is a landscape, the short story is a close-up. You must choose subjects with narrower scope—such as an event, a moment in time, captured as if by accident.