1). At the heart of all stories is conflict. I believe that a new writer needs to keep that in mind. “Only trouble is interesting.” (Janet Burroway) Why? It’s not because we are ghouls who like to watch characters squirm in pain like ants under our magnifying glass. It’s because conflict implies uncertainty. The outcome of a conflict, any conflict –from football games to poker tournaments to disintegrating marriages— is interesting because we seek some kind of closure –an end to the conflict. We want to know how it plays out. Who wins, who loses. Stories without conflict are not even stories. They are anecdotes. Slices of life at best.
Think otherwise? Find that too truculent? Too male? Try these classics you never heard of:
2.) “Every story is two stories.” (Grace Paley) What happens, and what it means to the character-or the reader. Surface and subtext. Note: This is the basis for an argument in favor of minimalism, the writer’s goal being to evoke the strongest possible feelings from the reader using the fewest words. That’s where the challenge lies in every kind of realistic fictions.
My caveat: As much as I like a pared-down story, the surface story must be compelling and vividly conjured before its meaning can be speculated upon. See above, my number one belief about all creative writing: Be interesting.
3.) The better you write, the less has to happen on the surface of the story: the less action you need. Only the most poetic writers can risk populating their stories with passive, sedentary characters; long passages of summary and exposition; long brooding internal monologues. In short, only the most recklessly lyrical writers can risk boring a reader.
Joking around in a workshop the other day I pointed out that if that white whale had washed up on the beach in Nantucket in front of Ahab’s cottage, Moby Dick would have been a very short story.
Again, the better you write the less has to happen. The converse being, of course, the worse you write the more action you need to keep a reader reading. This is why genre writing--with its characteristic action-packed scenes--has a bad name in academic circles.
4). “Theme is the reader’s business." (Ron Carlson) Using a story as a launching pad for symbols will kill a fiction faster than almost anything--except long dream sequences.
5.) Edgar Allen Poe was right; the short story IS the most perfect form of literary art, superior in his view (and mine) to both the novel and the poem-- for all the reasons Poe declared. I’ll see Poe his bias and raise him this: the best kind of short story is the empathy-driven.
From an email to Nancy:
"So, here is my complaint (and by the way, I did like the story, or more accurately the terrific PLOT of the story; I was too disappointed with her--and too furious at the New Yorker editors for being too cowardly to confront her--to enjoy the story itself. I see this as an example of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome.
"My logic goes like this: When a traditional, lineal, realistic fiction seems like it offers us something more than mere entertainment, we grace it with the word literary. There are many ways (more or less arbitrary) to decide when a fiction merits this title, of course. But there are a few criteria generally accepted by most of the people for whom such distinctions seem to matter--that is, we in the academy for the most part.
"One attribute we honor in traditional fictions is lyricism, and musicality. These are the “language driven” or “style driven” stories. Munro is a great story teller, but is not known to be a particularly flamboyant stylist. And I think it’s fair to say that the story in question is not driven by language.
"Another great virtue of good fiction is the way it creates empathy in the reader by allowing him to live through the (fictional) experience of a character, to reach that moment of decision with her while simultaneously judging her actions and her values (and his own). Fictions driven by empathy serve as a kind of moral calisthenics, an exercise for our souls. Such “empathy driven” stories make us better and more humane each time we come to feel for a character this way.
"This is what I think Munro’s story COULD HAVE been (an empathy driven story of great power), and should have been, (no apology for my bias) but fails to be, because Munro did not keep us in the heart and mind of the titular character. The POV wandered away from her and we did not get to see her make the unfortunate choices in her life that led to the climax. The most economical and elegant way to bring the reader to the wonderful climax would have been to have the reader live the entire arc of the affair through Corrie’s mind and heart. This my bias in favor of the third person, subjective, very close in POV. I think it is maybe the one good thing fiction can do for the world: make us more humane."
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