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
SPELLBINDING SHORT STORIES: WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
Catching your reader’s attention with:
A. TITLES: SHORT, PUNCHY, DIRECT, WITH AN ELEMENT OF MYSTERY
“What Remains” (Emma Donoghue); “Ashes to Ashes to Ashes” (Ruth Nadelhaft); “Winter Term” (Sallie Bingham); “The Lady with the Pet Dog” (Anton Chekhov); “The Beast in the Jungle” (Henry James) — choose a favorite. Why?
• “What Remains”: present tense
• “Ashes to Ashes to Ashes”: cliché built upon changed meaning
• “Winter Term”: double meaning; youth
• “The Lady with the Pet Dog”: elegance
• “The Beast in the Jungle”: violence
B: YOUR FIRST SENTENCE
• “She hasn’t asked for me in two months.” Ambiguity: who is speaking? (Donahue)
• “It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.” (Chekov) detachment? Sense of a crowd of spectators?
• “Old Jeff Patton, the black share-farmer, fumbled with his bow tie.” (Arna Bontemps) contrast.
• “Everyone asks what I “think” of everything, said Spencer Brydon” (James) voice
Choose one. What makes it work?
Write a first sentence without worrying about what will follow. Read aloud. What would the title be?
Your reader may be somewhat dead to words due to texting, Twitter, etc. which do not depend on word choice for communication. Therefore you may need to startle with ADJECTIVES, VERBS and METAPHORS that are fresh and invigorating:
METAPHORS AND SIMILES (handle with care)
WRITE A SENTENCE USING A FRESH VERB, NOUN, AND METAPHOR OR SIMILIE. DOES ANYTHING SUGGEST WHAT IS TO FOLLOW OR WHO THE NARRATOR IS?
• Using dialogue (color, intensity, dialect, regional difference, humor).
• Concealment as showing—what? (Mansfield dialogue, next page)
• Tone of voice establishes who is speaking, rather than she says/he says: (Horrocks dialogue, next page
• Hemingway: “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”: only dialogue
• Using adjectives that reveal character, through appearance or beyond appearance.
WRITE SEVERAL LINES OF DIALOGUE DESCRIBING TWO CHARACTERS, WITHOUT ANY OTHER DEVICES.
READ PLAYS TO HONE YOUR DIALOGUE: in theatre, dialogue must carry nearly all the meaning, characterization, etc. READ FIRST PAGE, “WILD THING”
ESTABLISHING POINT OF VIEW: WHO IS TELLING THIS STORY?
• Third person omniscient: you are God
• Unreliable narrator: why?
• One character in the story is the narrator: why?
• Avoiding overusing your own point of view: frequently creating a character of your own age, gender and background. Then fiction proves unreliable.
• Told from one character’s point of view: Can this pov change during the course of the story?
NARRATOR IS A CHARACTER: don’t mistake for memoir or autobiography; in fiction, the first person is not the author.
HOW TO END WITH A BANG
Epiphanies: moments of revelation, plot or character driven, that reveal a profound change on the part of the central character:
Joyce: “The Dead”. The narrator sees his wife, at the end of the party, standing at a window on the stairs, looking out at the snow, and realizes suddenly that she has been in love as a girl and that she will never love in that way again. Epiphany depends on a character’s obliviousness—habit, conventionality, failure to observe; so an ordinary event can have unexpected consequences.
Tying up plot or leaving the ending open: