Saturday, February 28, 2009

Constructing the Short Story (Fiction: Part Two) From The Broadkill Review Vol. 1, No. 2 March 2007


The first flaw the novice makes in writing a short story is in wanting to write a short story about (fill in the blank). The idea for a setting, or a scene, or an event, may seem particularly significant for a variety of what are generally rather personal reasons. Often this is an idea that has taken hold with the vague notion that “someone ought to write a story about it (whatever “it” is).”

That’s not enough. The work comes, as with anything of value, after you spend some time with it, develop ideas about plot threads, characters, how they mesh, and how events unfold. About how this unfolding effects or changes which of the characters, and why. How this alters the character who is, surprise, the protagonist, or the person whom the story is about, and, vicariously, the reader.

Why do you want to write this particular story? “Because it is important.“ “Important to whom?” I ask. “Important to me,” the green writer will reply. That’s good, for if it isn’t really important to you, don’t start. Not, at least, with your first attempt at fiction. Those who are experienced writers know that they can get interested, occasionally, in a story which is not initially interesting to them, but that approach is just a waste of time for the novice.

Understand that the most important rule for writing a short story, other than Edgar Allan Poe’s three rules lined out in the previous issue of The Broadkill Review, is to learn to stop thinking about the story and let it begin to write itself.

Do not make the mistake of bringing your rational and analytical powers to bear on the story as it evolves. Far too many short stories die still-born because the writer is thinking like an editor before he or she even gets started. The time for editorial review is after the story is finished, not one second before!

If you have done your job correctly,the thing which is so important that it has motivated you to want to share it with others as a short story will guide the development of plot and help flesh out characters for you. Now there is nothing mysterious about this. It is just that most apprentice “fictioneers” have yet to learn to trust that their subconscious will have made some connection with the material, too. It is the subconscious which provides inspiration, not the conscious.

The effect of this learning to trust all of your mind’s fabulous creativity is that you need not struggle to name a character. Someone in the story will undoubtedly call to your character by name in dialogue. And you should stick with that name, because it will be the most important name that character can have for what he or she does.

(Nearly everyone has at one time or another in their childhood wished that they had been named something else. Names, after all, dictate much our sense of ourselves — and names will dictate much of the characters’ senses of themselves as well — ask anyone named “Darryl” or “Esme” or “Petunia” or “Dick.” My name is “James Brown,” after all.)

At any rate, you cannot begin, the first time this sort of serendipitous thing happens to you, to understand the enormous complexity and richness to which this can lead.

A minor character in my short story, “Feria,” wound up named “Dory,” short, I guessed, for “Doreen” or some such. I didn’t analyze it, but trusted my subconscious. It helped to shape her character, and then, when the first draft was finished, I realized that the importance of her character is that she throws the protagonist a life-ring, euphemistically speaking, and the “dory = lifeboat” connection was something with which I was quite happy. No one seems to have noticed, and it probably wouldn’t matter to anyone but me anyway; nonetheless, I think it makes the text richer.

The axiom of all good writers is “write what you know.” This does not mean that you should write it down “exactly as it happened in real life.” Hemingway, I think it was, once said something to the effect that the writer’s job was to “make it truer than true, realer than real.” This means, specifically, that reality and what you know should be the starting point for your story, and not the ending point.

So when a new writer says, “I have trouble finishing a story,” or “I have trouble with making my characters do what I want,” or “I can’t seem to keep going,” or any number of similar complaints, I’m fairly certain that the person making the statement is over-thinking whatever the situation is with which they are having trouble. What they really have trouble doing is letting go of their own sense of themselves as the creator of the story, thinking, of course, that anything which they create they must remain in absolute control of, and that, of course, is nearly impossible. (Even God, I am told, allows for free will.)

So let your characters breathe on their own, and they will begin to think and act on their own, and not always in ways which you expect. (Not consciously, at least. Your subconscious will be taking care of this all by itself and offering your conscious mind its creative efforts.)

Just at the point when you find yourself thinking, “Oh no. My character would never say something like that!” you should smack yourself in the face with a cold wet rag, tell yourself to stop thinking, and start writing it down exactly as it begins to come to you because, even if you (or your conscious mind) don’t understand how or why the character says or does something, if you trust your subconscious, creative mind, you will eventually learn exactly why he or she or they say or do exactly what you don’t think they ever could.

Just shut up and get out of the way. The story will tell itself.

1 comment:

  1. Like it, a zen approach to writing. Do you have any novels, or short story collections out?