John Lehman pretending to be David Mamet

     The story may not be credible to someone who has gone blind but the subject is the realationship between the husband and wife and that dynamic seems true. In order for something to be dramatic there needs to be a tension between people in a scene that makes the audience wonder “Who is going to win, who is going to lose.” The characters (author) uses whatever they have to get their way. Tone of voice, body language, facial reaction. And readers hang on these elements as clues to the outcome.

     One of my favorite books for writers isn’t even directed to them. It is called “Handbook for Actors” by NYU students of the playwrite David Mamet. Now he has written numberous books about writing and about the theater, but this one by people he was teaching cuts to the chase in a way his other explanations don’t. The book lists some terms for creating drama on stage that I think work just as well on paper. Here they are. We will talk more about them and apply them to some examples in upcoming posts. But first read through the list and think about what these mean in terms of your own writing.


action:  The physical pursuance of a specific goal. 

analysis:  The process whereby the action of a scene is determined.  It is derived from  these three questions.

1.   What is the character literally doing?

2.   What is the objective of what the character is doing in the scene?

3. What is the action like to me?  It’s as if…

 as-if:  The answer to question 3 of the analysis. It is a simple projection that makes specific for you the action you have chosen in step 2 of the analysis; it is a device serving to bring the action to life for you.

beat:   A single unit of action.  A scene (chapter) may have one or more of these. 

beat change:  The point during a scene where a new action begins. It occurs when a new piece of information or an event takes place over which the character has no control and which by its very nature must change what the actor is doing. 

cap:   The event or condition indicating that an actor has succeeded in his action.

 character:   The illusion created by the words and given circumstances supplied by the writer and director combined with the actions and externals of the actor. 

given circumstances:   Any piece of information or activity written into the work or demanded by the director comprising the imaginary framework within which an action is performed. 

living in the moment: Reacting impulsively to what the other character(s) in a scene does, according to the dictates of your action. 

objective:  The single element that defines what the character is doing in a scene, without which the scene will not work. 

subtext:  What is going on underneath the text. For example, if on the day your husband ides, you are buying a pair of gloves, the subtext of his death would greatly affect the way you felt, even if the action of buying gloves is everyday. Nothing of the subtext is ever going to occur unless the actor puts it there. 

through-action (goal):   The single overriding action that encompasses all the actions an actor pursues from scene to scene, from the beginning of a play to the end.



Want to write a short story? Get plenty of rest.
Want to write a short story? Get plenty of rest.

“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:

1. Character

2. Plot 

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:

            Story structure

            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.