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Short Stories: The Novelist’s Workshop


photo by Flickr's andrej [1]
photo by Flickr’s andrej

“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”

—Henry David Thoreau

Laurie R. King once remarked that she tends not to write short stories because, to make sure they meet her personal standards, they require almost as much work as one of her novels, with only a fraction of the financial reward.

Sure, she was exaggerating—I think … somewhat—but I’ve heard a number of other novelists say much the same thing.

I myself tend not to write short stories unless specifically asked to do so, usually for an anthology a friend is putting together (e.g., Wall Street Journal music columnist Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music, coming out later this year).

I tend to think of stories in much the same way I do articles, as marketing devices, ways to get my name out there in a novel way, ho ho.

But that won’t work unless the stories are strong, and like Laurie says, good stories require a lot of the same effort that full novels do, precisely because of the increased demands for condensation, clarity of effect, and brevity.

This is very much on my mind right now because I’m working on a new novel as my story collection, Thirteen Confessions, is coming out.

I had to review once more all those stories I’d written for various anthologies and magazines, choose the best, say goodbye to the less-than-best, and do any last minute tidying up I felt was necessary.

It was a sobering experience, and not for the reasons I might have expected.

I recognized both the restrained scope of the stories and yet the increased necessity for impact.

First, I noticed I’d returned to certain themes and situations more habitually than I’d realized, perhaps because the time between stories created a kind of amnesia.

This ended up being my test for which stories to include, which to cull. What dismayed me was the fact I hadn’t recognized the repetition until all the stories were in front of me at once. It’s a bit unsettling to realize how close you can come to falling into a rut.

On the other hand—and this was even more surprising—I was generally satisfied with the writing itself. Trust me, that’s no small matter. I’m not only my own worst critic, I’m brutal.

What helped was the fact that I recognized both the restrained scope of the stories and yet the increased necessity for impact.

Finishing a novel, I often feel as though I’ve been on a journey. A story is something else altogether. It’s more like a glimpse through an open door into a room I’ve always wondered about but never been allowed to enter, with a sense that either that door shortly will close again for good or remain lodged open forever.

I realize I’m over-generalizing, but what I mean to convey is that a good story has a sense of sudden, even shocking revelation—the Joycean epiphany we were all taught to look for in our literature classes—and cannot rely on the gradual accumulation of effects that a novel provides.

But that accumulation of effects relies to a great extent on many of those same sudden and shocking revelations—and that’s where stories make excellent laboratories for novel-writing.

I’ve come away from the experience of putting this collection together with an increased awareness of the need to make my novel chapters every bit as focused, intense, and surprising as my stories.

In particular, I realized that a few techniques are especially crucial for making that happen.

Why Less is More (Unless it’s Not Enough)

The need to keep the word count below a fixed target—those who write articles for a living will understand this implicitly—really does force you to train your eye for the numerous ways we unwittingly repeat ourselves, belabor the obvious, over-explain, needlessly digress, etc.

As Steven James notes in Story Trumps Structure, “Repetition kills tension.” Repeated words and phrases, duplication of characters or roles, too many similar scenes, etc.—these all create clutter that obscures or bogs down the story.

The need for brevity also reacquainted me with the difference between what I, the writer, thinks is necessary and what the reader actually needs.

Paraphrasing the actor Peter Riegert, who put this notion in the context of theater, not fiction: The reader a job to do. Let him do it.

The reader a job to do. Let him do it.

Don’t micromanage the reader’s imagination. Give her just enough to engage her own mind and heart and then move on. Leave gaps for her to fill in—this allows her to lean into the story, rather than being pushed away by a barrage of verbiage.

True, one reader’s state of piqued curiosity is another’s bafflement, and minimalist omission will not solve all your writing problems. But in general, I’ve found that more mistakes are made in piling on the language than in trusting the reader’s intelligence.

Bottom line: Fall in love with your story, not your words.

Need to Tell Not Show? Trust Voice

The need for compression often requires a greater use of exposition—storytelling, in the classic sense. Fully fleshed-out scenes take time—and words.

This would seem to contradict the maxim: Show don’t tell. But as any wise writer knows, this isn’t an absolute.

One of the key ways to make exposition work is through voice. I don’t mean showy prose—I mean the strength, color, and clarity of language used to present the exposition.

This may imply an implicit narrator, omniscient or otherwise. That’s fine as long as it’s a conscious choice, and head-hopping is kept to a minimum.

Or it may mean simply capturing each character’s voice with precision, allowing what they say—and the way to say it—to convey all that’s being left unsaid.

The main point: we all know a good storyteller from one who’s not so good. The difference often lies in tone: flat and dull versus vivid and engaged. And in fiction, this is a question of voice.

Bottom line: Fall in love with your story, not your words.

The Specific Conveys the General

The reliance on voice has as its corollary the need to choose the essential detail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to hack away unnecessary words to render vividly the one key detail that makes an impression truly memorable.

And an unforgettable moment, through some strange magic, can conjure a lifetime.

I’ve learned to trust this minimalistic focus as the best way to render a larger view. It’s something of a paradox, but we see the whole more fully by intently focusing on a key detail.

Or, as Flannery O’Connor put it: ‘[T]he longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it.”

I found that quote in the chapter titled “Showing and Telling” in Janet Burroway’s superb Writing Fiction. Burroway goes on to note, however, that it isn’t enough to just choose vivid details.

Referencing O’Connor again, the point is to realize that truly evocative details don’t just work on the surface of the narrative; when properly chosen, they conjure a kind of symbolic depth, resonating with the rest of the story.

Knowing which details are truly that evocative often only comes to you after you’ve worked on the story a while, and begun to see the interconnections between moments, scenes, characters, and their impressions.

Quoting Burroway: “No amount of concrete detail will move us … unless it also implicitly suggests meaning and value.”

An unforgettable moment, through some strange magic, can conjure a lifetime.

As with details, so with scenes. The art of staging consists primarily in knowing which scenes to keep and which to discard. Choosing the best, most indicative scenes and rendering them well, through the power of suggestion, manages to convey all the other scenes that remain unaddressed.

But also, when the scene is truly essential, an irreplaceable part of the cause-and-effect chain of events that form the story, it echoes the other links in that chain.

The Magic of Surprise

For me, the hardest part of writing is to create a realistic expectation that something will occur—only to betray that expectation with something equally realistic but totally unexpected, even shocking.

This isn’t just to provide a thrilling experience. The unexpected—whether it’s an unanticipated decision, emotional reaction, or word—manages to convey more depth and range than the specific incidence might suggest. The gap between expected and unexpected is a void the imagination, like water, automatically and naturally seeks to fill.

This is also what makes contradiction such a powerful technique in characterization—the reader automatically wonders what lies between and holds together the two opposing elements of character or extremes of behavior.

And what is contradiction but a kind of surprise?

The gap between expected and unexpected is a void the imagination, like water, automatically and naturally seeks to fill.

This dual role—intriguing twist and imaginative magnet—has convinced me that surprise isn’t just a neat trick. It’s an essential, powerful element that any good story, whatever its length, requires to be truly satisfying.

All of which has led me to realize that Laurie King’s statement, that good short fiction requires almost as much work as novels, isn’t quite “the whole story.”

Rather, truly great novels are comprised of scenes and chapters that have much of the same intensity, focus, and surprise of great short stories.

Which means it’s probably time I got back to work on my novel.

How have your short story efforts enhanced your command of novel-writing craft?

Are there any particular short stories you’ve found particularly educational?

Can you think of novels that don’t require the kind of chapter-by-chapter intensity I’m suggesting? Why do they work regardless?

About David Corbett [2]

David Corbett [3] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [4], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.