For eight years I taught a creative writing workshop in advanced fiction at Georgetown University’s School for Summer and Continuing Education. Over the course of that time several important ideas framed themselves as principles for the writer of short fiction. Let me start by saying that I owe much of this approach to Edgar Allan Poe, who is rightfully recognized as America’s first literary theorist. Poe, you see, edited, over his lifetime, several literary magazines, and it was in the course of these jobs that he codified his three rules for the writer of the short story. I ground each of my workshops in his three principles.
First, Poe said, the short story must be short. This was undoubtedly a response to writers like Melville and Hawthorne, whose “short stories” read to him like mini-novels, and are, in fact, recognized as such today, although we know them as “novellas.” Poe believed that this new form, “the short story,” should be about the length that could be read at one sitting. Secondly, Poe believed that the short story must not try to do too much. The story writer, he felt, should strive to achieve a single emotional effect in the reader. Anything more complex or layered should take a novel to achieve.
Any writing, no matter how beautiful or emotionally significant to the author, which does not promote that end, should be stricken. (This does not mean that you should erase what you have written by any means. Just move it out of that particular short story.)
Thirdly, the short story must not be so short as to fail to achieve the second objective, and the writer must be careful not to sacrifice what must be told in order to achieve for the sake of brevity alone.
I believe that in a workshop of creative writers, the individual must not dissemble when speaking of their intent, for how can the workshop assess the result without knowing what was intended? (Let me assert here that confusion is not an emotional effect.) This takes a self- discipline which every novice writer should master.
No matter how important or significant a point in the a story is to you, the author, if it does not move the story itself forward, it should be eliminated. Remember always that writing is the first interactive medium, that the reader must be encouraged to invest of themselves in the story which you are trying to tell.
Pushing the reader away with highly stilted or artificial prose cannot serve the purpose of the writer who seeks to engage the reader in what John Gardner calls “the waking dream.” That is the sense that almost everyone who has been engrossed in a good book has experienced, where the synapses are making connections with the experiential part of the brain without your having to be consciously aware of it. Where the story “becomes” real for the reader.
John Updike wrote in one of his short stories of the face of a young woman reading on the bus “who had just emerged from a work of fiction,” an image which suggests (to me at least) the face of a competitive diver who has just come to the surface of a pool after a dive from the 10 meter platform.
As readers, we emerge from the fictive world created by the author, and it is a feeling which we like. Whether endorphins are released by this state and reward us for becoming absorbed in other peoples’ lives is irrelevant to the satisfaction we feel when we have had that experience.
Gardner argues that to forcibly evict the reader from that state of mind, that space they inhabit, is a direct violation of the unwritten contract the writer has established with the reader. This is connected with Poe’s Second Rule, insofar as to push the reader away from the text effectively prevents the story’s evoking any emotional effect in the reader whatsoever.
The contractual understanding is where the reader, having invested in reading the beginning of the story, now feels a sense of trust in the writer. It is this trust in the writer which the writer must not undercut or devalue. It affects the reader like a slap in the face. And why should anyone continue to read someone who assaults them in this way? The answer is, they shouldn’t, and most readers won’t. They’ll just put down the story or novel and go on to read something else, or, worse yet, stop reading and turn on the television.
So remember Poe’s three rules as you write, and Gardner’s admonition against pushing the reader away from the text.