Friday, November 16, 2012

Short and Sharp

I've been reading a lot of short stories lately. Usually fall and winter are the seasons when I like to curl up with a good thick novel, but it hasn't worked that way so far this year. A week when you're running up and down stairs most of the day helping to clean a cellar isn't exactly the right time for getting into something deep. I'm thankful for the existence of short fiction to fill the moments I've had for reading.

I've read several good short story collections over the course of this year—Love Stories by Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Man With Two Left Feet and Other Stories by P.G. Wodehouse, and of course Poor, Dear Margaret Kirby and Other Stories by Kathleen Norris being some of the best. Right now I'm working my way through the collected stories of Lucy Maud Montgomery (a real bargain for Kindle—142 stories for 99 cents!). While many of these are quite pleasant, they don't have the same punch. After a while I began to see that the fault lay in the construction of the story. Too many of them unroll exactly as you expected them to—there's no tension or sense of expectancy; no real question as to what might happen next. And when I began comparing them to the structure of those other, better stories I mentioned above, I had one of those moments where something clicks in your head. Based on that, I've worked out my own extremely basic philosophy for writing a successful short story:

In a short story that works, at approximately three-quarters of the way through it, something happens.

It doesn't have to be something big or drastic. It's just some incident that either explains everything that came before it, resolves the conflict that's been set up, or (this one's best suited to a comic story) knocks someone's best-laid plans to pieces. Once I realized all this, I went back and looked at the table of contents in Poor, Dear Margaret Kirby, and was easily able to identify the thing that happened around the three-quarter mark in each story that clinched the plot and completed the story. This was a big help to me, because I'd been fiddling with a short story idea and having trouble with the final quarter of it, yet wasn't sure exactly what it was lacking. Now I think I know.

I love those moments when something clicks in your head.

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