It’s A Place for Self-Reflection, The World of Words Expressing Limitless Thoughts, Imagination, and Emotions

Rabu, 19 Januari 2011


Preface:  There a vast number of techniques to teach a short story to the students. On this occasion, I would share how Deborah teaches it in her class and recommend you to follow it carefully. I hope you find it useful to enrich your teaching technique. (Much. Khoiri).

First let me confess that I think that the short story is one of the most sublime of literary forms. It is probably due to my unwillingness to believe in monogamy and to my belief that less is more. Maybe not in that order. But there is something so incredibly compelling when a master (and there are so many of them) pulls off a great short story.

The list goes on and on when I'm asked who to read: Munro, Chekov, Malamud, Millhauser, Shields, Cather, Gordimer, Nabokov, Greene, Welty, Paley, Michaels, Hemingway, Carver, Faulkner, Trevor, O'Brien, I think you see that there is never going to be an end to this list and you will add to this your own personal favorites.

To begin with, like all stories, there has to be a beginning, something that grabs your reader. I don't mean it has to be something shocking or outlandish. Sometimes an opening can be subtle and quiet but points to something much bigger, more disruptive and disquieting to come. And in other instances, the opening can be shocking and then rewind the time and the circumstances to arrive at that moment again.

The chronology of the story and the locale of the story work to keep your reader grounded in the story. The weather probably doesn't. Letting the reader know the when and where involves him or her, gives the reader a stake in what is about to happen.

What will give you, the writer, the greatest stake in the story is knowing who the protagonist is, knowing that character in such an intimate way that you will not be able to avoid writing the story.

Knowing specifically what the protagonist's conflict is, in very precise terms, can open up for you what the plot should be. For example, if the protagonist's conflict is (see the essay on this site about conflict and risk for a full description of this element of story writing) with a personal enemy, the nature of that antagonist's relationship to the protagonist will help to devise the plot.

If the protagonist and antagonist are siblings, for example, then it will probably be helpful to begin by thinking of them competing for one or the other of the parents or a parental substitute. If the protagonist's conflict is with himself, then start thinking
of a plot where that inner struggle needs to find an outward manifestation, like the body can display disease when the inner world is troubled.

Or when a protagonist is in conflict with the world she inhabits, she can do something to try and upset or change that world. And in the more grand of the conflicts, when a character is in conflict with a fate or a god or a being greater than itself, your job might be easier if you understand what outcome this story is to have and that can help you determine what kind of plot is necessary for that to happen.

There are no new stories. The plot lines we read are all pretty consistently the same plot lines that have been in use for millennia. Why not stop making your life difficult and not worry about making the plot original but worry about truly understanding the characters who have to live through this plot and you can begin by understanding the motivation of all the characters.

Inciting incidents, double and triple twists, the tricky uses of verb tenses, changing POVs and the like are all ingredients we add to the mix of sexing up a story and challenging ourselves as writers to do the high wire act without a net, but without believable characters who do and say things in such a way that the reader believes your characters would do that, and at the same time, accepting that no one in life or in a story changes their life, has any kind of transformation, without something radical occurring means that you have to be willing to put your characters in harm's way.

Perhaps this sounds like I'm asking you to write contrived and complicated plots for their own sake. That is not what I am suggesting. But your story will not command any reader's attention and engagement unless you as the writer have something at stake in it. And I can guarantee you that nothing will be at stake if most of the action is of the bland, mundane, everyday plain variety. It may begin there, but it
must move beyond there. Usually what a writer, in the beginning of study finds, is that most of their own personal life experiences have not been either that particularly harrowing or if they have been, that they can't communicate it except as melodrama.

No matter which way you want to slice the pie, the only way you will know what will make for the greatest tension in the story is if you know beyond the bounds of the story itself, just what it is that the character would risk to get what he or she wants. That is the key to writing the story.

All of what I have described above is necessary but will not work sufficiently well until you can know that protagonist's necessary desire to get what she or he wants and then learn how to express that action, build that action over the length of time of the story and use the locale in which it occurs to give it even more depth and vitality.

You have many tools to use in this building of your story. The first one to consider is description. The largest part of most storytelling is description. Not all writers use it or use it well. But those who do, and those from whom you can learn a great deal, will show you how to balance the action and the description (take a good look at Chekov and Munro). There are writers who prefer to focus almost exclusively on the narrative voice. That is what interests them in storytelling.

If you think of Nabokov's short stories, for example, you will see that he is quite keen on description and the narrative drive as opposed to the use of much dialogue. The interior world of the characters as well as the observations of the narrators interested him. His story, "Sounds," is a wonderful example of the use of a distinct and disturbing narrative voice, a voice that almost smothers the story, but the use of description is so intensely precise that as a reader you are waiting for each sentence to reach its conclusion.

There are those writers who are much more interested in action and dialogue and their examples (obviously we're talking about writers like Hemingway, Michaels, Carver) will give you truly wonderful insights about coming up with the essential detail and the ways in which dialogue can guide the story's action without it sounding like a soap opera or a play.

Learning to write dialogue well takes time and patience and a certain willingness to sound stupid. Creating believable, worthwhile dialogue takes more practice than most good writers of dialogue will ever admit. Every one of those characters of yours has to sound distinctly different. They will if you pay attention to all the chatter that goes on around you daily.

A good ear is probably a nice attribute to have, but not all musicians need to have perfect pitch in order to tune their instruments. Listen to the ways in which the people around you speak and watch what they do when they speak. What would your characters say in those situations and don't be seduced by the kind of banter that passes for dialogue in television or the movies. On the page, dialogue reads, obviously, differently. If you find that your characters don't speak distinctly enough, start differentiating them by drawing up lists of words that are words only they would use. Then think about the kind of syntax they would use and the kinds of gestures and even avoidances they would need in order to say what you need to have them say in your story.

The last tool I'm going to mention is the mood of your story. Moods are emotions. Without real feelings, stories fall flat. Real feelings are not ones of rage and anger and the battles we wish we had won. The more nuanced and modulated the feelings, the more exquisitely charged your story will be. You have to feel it, know it, then distance yourself from it, in order to be able to find the appropriate language to
express it. In discussing the emotions of characters, it is also necessary to remind writers that physical manifestations of emotions tend to sound like clichés and don't carry the same weight as the kinds of really charged emotional descriptions you will find in writers like Bruno Schulz and James Baldwin.

As a way to wake up your emotional energies, I can recommend reading the opening pages of Baldwin's last novel, Just Above My Head. I can think of no opening to a novel that has had such an impact on me. The force of the brother's rage and despair over the loss of his brother comes leaping out of that narrator's throat and writhes on the page to such a degree that if you can't feel on the edge of the despair that he describes, you have to seriously wonder if you are still alive.

There are other things to be said about writing dialogue that haven't been covered in this essay. An essay on Carver's use of dialogue, looking specifically at "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," examines how he used Plato's Symposium to structure his story. And in a different essay, I discuss Munro's story, "The Love of a Good Woman" and how she used a structuring technique that might be
of interest to you when thinking about how to conceptualize a story.

The intention in all of these essays is not to make writing seem too cerebral, but to help you see that stories don't arise out of some ether. They come from that inner world of ours trying to find their external manifestations. The only way humans have ever been able to do that is through storytelling. If you love, like I do, the short story and want to study it all the days of your life, I can guarantee you that that will be time well spent. Whatever it is you want to write about, it takes time to learn how to write it and I hope this essay, if nothing more, made you want to do just that.

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