What makes a good short story?
Published: July 26, 2006
|"Life and stories are not smooth and level roads. They have hills and valleys, potholes and possums…"|
How does a short-story begin? In as many ways as there are short stories. As different as snowflakes. As individual as your DNA. Think of Kathryn Mansfield's story "Bliss" that begins, "Although Bertha Young was thirty, she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement. . . " Compare Bertha's mood to Flannery O'Connor's much anthologized short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," in which "The Grandmother didn't want to go to Florida." Even in the opening, that grandmother had an inkling whom they'd meet down the dirt road.
In my short story, "Green Lightning and the Tablecloth Bride," I walked a lot of opening lines around in my mind, only to push them aside and begin, "Talk about fast weddings! I think my mother and Aunt Harriet once set some kind of record In less than three hours, they had the wedding dress, bride's bouquet, cake (complete with wedded couple figures), a borrowed piano, and Uncle Elmo in his stocking feet, playing "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Once I had the opening line on the page, the rest of the story came chugging into view. In another of my stories, "Wooden Apples," a teenage girl discovers her father is having an affair. I began with an image: "The old cedar tree made a dark triangle of shade." I didn't realize until after the story was published that my visual image had also given me the word "triangle," which is what the story is about. So, trust your images and go with them.
All short stories begin with an idea. One of the questions writers are most often asked is "Where do you get your ideas?" First and foremost, from reading. Everything from books and magazines, odd scraps of paper stuck to your shoe, to billboards and cereal boxes. Recently in a building supply store I noticed on the counter a stack of bright pink business cards, advertising a beautician who made house calls. I wondered what kind of person owned this business and imagined the variety of customers she saw in a week. So, in my imagination, I followed Mobile Mabel with her hairdressing tools to a farm in the foothills, where she met a surprise.
"One way to jump start a story is to take an item from the newspaper of some small event that actually happened..."
I'm fascinated by unusual occupations. They are stories in themselves. Once, when I was a volunteer at my son's school, a guest speaker showed up in a royal blue costume, complete with cape and leotards spangled with silver raindrops. She worked for a conservation organization, and her costume represented the earth's water supply. Short story? You bet!
I love Friends of the Library sales where you can pick up all sorts of little magazines, as well as "slick magazines," for a few dollars. Go through them, remove the short stories, and analyze them. Using different colored highlighters, mark character descriptions, flashbacks, transitions, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. This method of "diagramming" helps you see what another story writer has achieved. If you want to write short stories, you have to read short stories. Read the kind of story you would like to write, and read the magazines and anthologies you'd like to be published in. Buy and subscribe to as many as you can; go to the library regularly for the rest. Reading good fiction is like giving your own prose injections of vitamins.
One way to jump start a story is to take from the newspaper an item of some small event that actually happened. Here you have your Who, What, When, and Where. . . you just don't have the WHY. That's where you, the writer, come in. You change the names and places and fill in the Why. Make up the characters involved from your imagination, then let those characters carry out your story. When your story is finished, even you won't recognize the newspaper item that triggered it. A classic example is Joyce Carol Oates's spine shivering short story, "Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?," based on a serial killer and rapist of teenage girls in Nevada in the fifties. For an added experience, rent the movie based on the story, Smooth Talk starring Laura Dern and Treat Williams. Compare the written word with the screen version, to see how characters come alive on the screen. Did the movie enhance, or spoil the story?
For years, I kept a yellowing newspaper clipping about a "hair bandit." In the actual newspaper account, the "bandit," who had yet to be apprehended, crept up in the night on women with extraordinarily long, glorious hair, snipped it off, and made away with it. The clipping kept turning up as I occasionally cleaned my desk. I knew I didn't want to stay in the mind of someone who would do such a thing for a whole story, but how else to tell it? Walking one day, I suddenly thought, why not tell it three ways? So I told my story which I named "Snip, Snip" (published in The Carolina Quarterly)-from three viewpoints: the woman whose hair was cut off, the man who did it, and his mother, who explained his odd fetish. Believe it or not, it became a very funny story.
An old idea that sometimes helps new and nervous writers who like some kind of formula to hang onto, is to jot ABCDE at the top of a page before they begin to write. It helps them to think in terms of Action, Background, Character (and conflict), Development, and End.
Action. Begin on a day that is different. Begin in the middle. Have you ever jumped double jump ropes? Starting a story is like that: You jump in the middle and keep jumping. The Greeks called it in media res, in the middle of the action. I took that writing adage to begin on a day that is different and made it a night that was different. "The Summer Kitchen," published in Redbook, began with a room in a house at a time of day it is not ordinarily in use. I had my character, Marie, making jelly, wild grape jelly, late at night, alone in a summer
cabin in the woods, "die only light for miles." Marie was finishing up a hot job in a cooling kitchen that was sticky and still filled with the smell of wild grapes. Thomas Wolfe once advised that to hook your reader thoroughly, get a smell in your prose. I worked to capture that smell of grapes on the pages and must have succeeded, since years after the story appeared, readers still mention it to me.
Background. Ground your readers as soon as possible. Let them know where your story is taking place. On a bus? A boat? In a basement? A backyard? You don't have to describe it; just name the place. Description can come early or later. Remember how John Steinbeck opened his story, "Chrysanthemums": "The high, grey flannel fog of winter closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world," paving the way for that "curious vehicle, curiously drawn" and for Elisa's heartbreaking discovery. Would his story have been the same set in the red clay South? Not for a single line.
Character. Every character is a story. Sometimes a name gives me a story. I keep a file of names, and just flipping through it often triggers a story for me. I collect names from obituaries, billboards, signs, posters. . . anywhere a name strikes me. I got excited when I read the name Cedora. (Cedora became a minor character in a mystery novel I'm working on. All I know about her at the moment is that she changed her name to Sunny Dey and she went to Nashville to become a famous recording star.) Therma Ann was a name I once overheard, and it became a character in my story, "The Marigold Wars," which has been anthologized several times. And Thildalee? For years I'd had a story idea jotted down in a small yellow notebook I carry in my purse. The idea was based on something I'd seen while driving on 1 85 heading to Atlanta, as dull a stretch of interstate as exists anywhere on God's green earth. The idea pulled around and passed me, but I'd never known quite what to do with it. When I came across the name Thildalee, I knew I had my story ("The Pink Bed').
When you have a character, you have conflict. That person wants something. Or doesn't want something. Or is going to do something. Something is going to happen to that person. How he or she reacts and why is your story. In "Me Pink Bed:' Thildalee told Ronnie she "just had to have her bed back. She sat cross legged on the edge of the tub, smoking. She'd gone three nights without sleeping, two weeks before that of light and fitful sleep. It was beginning to show. Bags under her eyes were dark as pansy petals."
Development. That's the body of your story. As the story goes along, something happens to change your character. Life and stories are not smooth and level; they have hills and valleys, potholes and possums. In 'Me Pink Bed," for example, complications for Thildalee include the fact that the bed she wants is in her ex husband's house. But she didn't learn that he didn't want to stay married to her until she breaks into his house.
End. That's where we are now. And I have a confession to make. Endings are usually hard for me. Maybe I don't want to leave my characters just yet. Maybe I don't want to leave them there standing alone on the page. Or waving goodbye. And I don't want to sum up the story for my reader in one sentence, as I would in an essay. I want the ending to be in the reader's mind. I want my reader to let out a satisfied "Ali, so that's what happened." Or "Ali, that's what the story was about." I often have to remind myself that if I can come up with the idea and write the opening and body of the story, I can write the ending. And I do. Sometimes it takes awhile, in which case, I read over what I've written, go for a walk and let my foot rhythms pound out the problem. If I have a deadline, I write something that sounds like an ending or closure until I can think of something better.
Then I face the next problem. A title. Not just any old name will do. It must be the right and only title, and that presents another set of problems to be solved. Often your story will "name!' itself. Somewhere in the story there will be a phrase that seems to leap off the page at you. It may take a friend or editor to point that out. If no phrases seem appropriate, make a list of ten "possible" titles. After you reread your story, jot down everything that comes to mind. Brainstorm by yourself. Sometimes a combination of two things you have on your list will give you a tide that has energy, originality, mystery, and verve.
What I find helpful is reading back volumes of such short story anthologies as The Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The 0. Henry Awards, and making a list of titles that grab you and demand to be read.
After your story is written, you can and should do no less than give it the best possible title.
--Posted July 26, 2006