Garrison Keillor, in Leaving Home, says, “A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together.” There’s something here that speaks to the short story form. What is a well-told story but a thunderstorm that we—writer, character, and readers—experience together.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the art of the short story lately, partly because I’m reading applications for admission to our MFA program, and partly because I’m about to gear up to teach our MFA fiction workshop this spring semester. While I know there are no absolutes when it comes to how to write a good story, here are some precepts that I’ve always found helpful.
1 Stories start in the midst of instability. Call it trouble, if you wish, or call it disturbance, or whatever else you want to call it. The point is the opening of a story occurs when the main character’s world is tilting. The opening is already leaning toward some sort of significant change for that main character.
2. The main character’s actions create the movement of the narrative. Simply put, people do things and those things have consequences.
3. One action creates another. A good narrative is built on a premise of cause and effect.
4. The narrative that the main character sets into motion ends up putting pressure on that character. The pressure builds until the story tips to the point where it’s impossible for the world to be the same. The ending that the opening was leaning toward is now nigh.
5. Because of the pressure of the narrative, something rises at the end of the story. Maybe it’s a change in the way the main character sees him or herself, or those around them, or the dramatic situation upon which the bones of the narrative hang.
6. Because the story can’t rely on simple changes (“Now, I knew I’d been wrong all along.”), it tries to find those moments of complication, the ones that leave the characters moving into a different world while the old world still resonates. The effect is one of forming a resonant chord of past, present, and future.
7. A good story often relies on simultaneous gain and loss to create a resonant end.
8. It can also rely on irony. See Irwin Shaw’s “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” for an example.
9. Good stories rely on good characterization. Interesting characters may think they know themselves, but they never know everything there is to know.
10. That’s what the story’s for—to show the character all that he or she doesn’t know.