Three Principles for Short Story Writers
Once upon a time, I lived in a place where a man had a habit of lying in the street at night, looking up at the stars. He was a troubled man who sometimes sat on his front porch, having conversations with whatever voices he heard in his head. Often these conversations were violent ones, with all sorts of foul language and sounds that weren’t human—wails, howls, and groans. At first, his behavior was shocking. Then, as the days and weeks and months went on, it became the regular come-and-go. He was just the man across the street.
One night, I pushed the garbage can to the curb and found him lying in the middle of the street. I asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I like to look at the stars.”
I asked him whether he was afraid a car might hit him.
“They always see me,” he said, “and they stop.”
“I wouldn’t want to see you get hurt,” I said.
“I wouldn’t want to see you get hurt,” he said, a hint of menace in his voice, and I went back inside my house.
I’ve posted about this before, but it’s still on my mind because this is the way stories begin, with these moments outside the habitual. The troubled man who became ordinary after enough time passed was suddenly extraordinary because for the first time he was clearly threatening. At that point, he became story-worthy.
This is the point where my imagination began to intersect with fact and led to my story, “Across the Street,” in my about-to-be-released collection, The Mutual UFO Network. What would happen, I wondered, if I let that one event out of the ordinary—that menacing comment—become the first episode in a causal chain that, when finished would present a complete narrative arc?
So that’s one thing—the creation of a sequence of narrative events that seems complete to the reader. It’s another thing, though, to give that narrative significance. In order to do that, a short story writer has to understand that there’s always a second story going on beneath the narrative arc of the surface story. That submerged story, located more within character relationships, is always working its way to the top through the pressures applied to it by the narrative events. To access that submerged story, a writer has to be a careful observer of people.
One day, I heard the man across the street talking very softly to himself. “This is my neighborhood,” he said, “and these are my neighbors.” He kept chanting that, and I saw that beneath his outrageous and menacing behavior there was a desire to be a different kind of man, a man who would be a part of a neighborhood, a man who would live a settled and well-measured life. In the story I ended up writing, I had to let the dramatic events of the narrative create this telling moment.
So a few things about writing short stories:
- Start with the habitual and let a moment outside the ordinary be the inciting episode for the narrative to follow.
- Create a causal chain of events that connect to the inciting episode and allows for its further exploration.
- Let the pressure of that causal chain lead to a telling moment, when characters reveal something about themselves not ordinarily on display.
The purpose of a good short story is to find the parts of people that usually go unnoticed in regular life, and to construct a narrative that surprises us when the generally unobserved truth suddenly appears. Such moments shake us because they force us to look at what we share. Who hasn’t wanted to be in a place of safety and comfort? Who hasn’t wanted to be accepted and loved? That’s the story of the man across the street. All I had to do was pay close attention to him and then find the appropriate narrative container for his story.
What an interesting voyage through the literary storyteller’s mind. I find my own stories start with this seesaw between the everyday and the other. Usually I put the ideas into fiction, but when I wrote my travel essays I was using that same aesthetic – the glimmer of the unusual that feels universal. And perhaps the boundary between reality and fiction is blurred anyway. I’m off to tweet.
“. . .the glimmer of the usual that feels universal.” I love the way you put that, Roz. Yes! We’re after those telling moments that give us more truth about what it is to be human, no matter how race, gender, etc.
‘No matter what race, gender etc….’ Yes! Writing is interior. It’s the best medium for telling us what something feels like. An interesting side effect is that I find it tricky to decide what a character looks like on the outside, but I know them on the inside very well.
It’s the inside of a character that makes a story memorable.