A series of essays on writing short stories, timed to coincide with my class “Spellbinding Short Stories” at the 2011 Cape Cod Writer’s Center Conference. — Sallie
Establishing point of view: who is telling the story?
Third person omniscient: you are God. You see, and know, everything about your plot and your characters. This can lead to detachment, condescension, especially if you chose to write about characters who are in some way less than you are. But it allows you great freedom to show what your character doesn’t see.
Unreliable narrator: gradually you reveal that this narrator has missed or misconstrued essential elements; this must be subtle. At first the reader believe this narrator; her authority is unquestioned. Before the end of the story, the reader is no longer certain: is there another version that would seem more true?
One character in the story provides the point of view: necessarily limited by the limits of the character but allows for much development.
IT’S IMPORTANT TO AVOID OVERUSING YOUR OWN POINT OF VIEW: FREQUENTLY CREATING A CHARACTER OF YOUR OWN GENDER, RACE, AGE AND BACKGROUND, LEADING TO A BLURRING BETWEEN FICTION AND AUTOBIOGRAPHY, POSSIBLY LEADING TO STALENESS.
Unreliable narrator: “The skin on her face was thin and drawn as tight as the skin of an onion and her eyes were gray and sharp like the points of two ice picks….She was pregnant, and pregnant women were not his favorite kind.” (“Parker’s Back”, Flannery O’Connor) Parker’s description boxes the reader into his dissatisfaction with his pregnant wife, creating a question in the reader’s mind: how would someone else see her? Who is she beyond an irritant for Parker, who is also intensely drawn to her and longs for her approval?
Omniscient narrator: “He stayed away like this, for a year; he visited the depths of Asia, spending himself on scenes of romantic interest, of superlative sanctity, but what was present for him everywhere was that for a man who had known what HE had known, the world was vulgar and vain.” (“The Beast in the Jungle”, Henry James) James presents himself as an omniscient narrator, knowing everything about his character; but is he indulging in irony at the expense of his character?
Narrator is a character in the story: “My trade is not what might be expected from the height of my red-heeled sandals or the swing of my patent-leather bag.” (“Mending”, Sallie Bingham) The narrator presents herself in ambiguous terms; the reader must decide during the course of the story who she really is.
ASSIGNMENT: WRITE A PAGE OF NARRATIVE AND DIALOGUE FROM THE POINT OF SOMEONE RADICALLY DIFFERENT FROM YOURSELF; READ ALOUD TO YOURSELF AND BE PREPARED TO READ IN CLASS TOMORROW.