May is National Short Story Month, and I’ve been reading a new book of stories: The Night, and the Rain, and the River (published by Forest Avenue Press).
Everything about this book is enticing, including the cleverly written introduction in which the editor, Liz Prato, cuts right to the core of this collection, saying the stories, though seemingly unconnected at first, center around one theme:
[W]hen I looked at the stories I had accepted…we have a goose, and an arsonist, and drug addicts and mothers and fathers and adulterers…They were all about longing to belong. To another’s heart, to family, to oneself. Which is perfectly in line with the vision of the press…that we are all a part of this beautiful bigger entity and can help each other along the way.
Liz Prato is here today discussing what makes for a good short story. Even better? There’s a giveaway. Leave your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of The Night, and the Rain, and the River direct from Forest Avenue Press.
How to Write a Good Short Story: In Short
By Liz Prato
You want to know how to write a really good short story? Read the submissions pile for a journal or anthology. Over the years, a lot of teachers opined that I’d learn more from the stories that were rejected than from toiling away at my computer. I always thought, “I don’t have time to write and read other people’s rejects.” Then, last year, I was asked to guest edit the journal VoiceCatcher, and the short story anthology, The Night, and the Rain, and the River, for Forest Avenue Press. And I swear, I learned more in one morning of reading submissions than I had in years of studying writing.
No, wait – that’s not quite right: in one morning, I came to understand what those years of studying writing really meant, and I felt that deep-sigh frustration when the elements of a good story weren’t on the page.
It’s ridiculously reductive to make a list of rules for How to Write a Good Short Story. This is art, not electrical engineering, and following a series of steps doesn’t ensure success. But we are list-obsessed these days, preferring small bites of advice to lengthy, Franzen-like theses, so I submit to you and the blog gods:
Four Elements For a Successful Short Story
1. STAKES. In our writers guidelines for Forest Avenue Press, we said: “We’re looking for stories that take emotional chances. . . We demand a plot – things must happen, there must be stakes.” Stakes – that was the key word there. But what became clear as I was reading is that many writers have no idea what that word – stakes – means. In short, it means something matters. Something is at risk. That your character wants something he or she cannot have, and there are consequences (emotional or physical) to not getting it.
Several stories I read were mildly amusing anecdotes, at best. Most stories suffering from a lack of stakes were just trying to be too nice – to the world, to their characters, mostly to their readers and their writers. If it’s a tale you’d relay to friends during happy hour (or your grandma at tea time), you probably don’t have sufficient stakes. Think about what you’d tell your new lover late at night, after you’ve made love, and are lying in the dark scared and hopeful about what will happen if you reveal who you really are. Tell that story.
2. COMPRESSION. Short stories are – duh, short – and to realize the form in a satisfying way, the author must create compression.
It’s not just about having fewer words. You must also have fewer plotlines, fewer characters, and less description than in a novel. That’s not to say you can’t have rich characters, or poetic prose, or a emotionally complex plot – it just means you don’t have hundred of pages to establish all that, so every single word must be essential. Every single word must contribute to your central plot and theme and character development.
I read many stories that were trying to tackle too much, and because they only had 5,000 words in which to tackle all that, guess what? Everything got short-shrifted. Nothing felt deeply explored or complete.
3. CLARITY. I can be self-deprecating. I often say things like, “Maybe I’m not the smartest reader . . . .”, but here’s the deal: I am a smart reader. I’m also a pretty generous reader. So, if you’ve confused me, then it’s because your story is unnecessarily confusing.
Don’t conflate obfuscation with art. Don’t confuse misdirection with suspense. Don’t withhold from the reader what they need to know to be fully invested in your story: who your characters are, where they are, why they’re there, and what they want. Your reader is your most intimate confident – not someone you are trying to trick, fool, or confound. Look at the first two sentences of “Bullet to the Brain,” by Tobias Wolff. What, when, where, why, who – it’s all there, and yet the reader is not remotely bored by this astounding clarity.
4. LANDING. Through the months of reading submissions, I developed an autonomic tick, if you will, that involved wildly waving my arms in front of my face, as if I was both spastically demanding “abracadabra!” and trying to swat away a swarm of tsetse flies. Whenever my arms launched into this involuntary spasm, my husband would look up at me and say, “Ending?”
Listen, I get it: endings are really, really hard to nail, and I’ve failed to nail my fair share of them. The biggest problem in the stories I read was endings that just dropped off a cliff. Stories ended mid-scene, mid-conversation, often on some line of dialogue that didn’t reveal anything new about the story. I found myself flipping pages or scrolling around, thinking I’d missed a page. I know short stories aren’t supposed to culminate in “and they all rode off into the sunset.” I know good short story endings are often open ended. But they should bring the reader – and the characters — to a place of rest. Even if for only a moment. An ending should evoke emotion above-and-beyond “What the fuck?” And the very best endings? They are surprising and inevitable at the same time.
Take the ending to “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. You pretty much know from page one what fate will befall the day-tripping family, and, yet, it is utterly horrifying when it does. Look at the ending to “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin: all the language and themes and plot lead us to Sonny playing that piano at the end. We do not know that Sonny will be okay – in fact, there’s plenty of evidence he will struggle. But in that last breath, Sonny and his brother are, if only for this moment, okay. Let your reader have that last breath, whether it is a sharp intake, or a contended sigh.
Liz Prato is the editor of The Night, and the Rain, and the River (Forest Avenue Press) and the Summer 2013 issue of VoiceCatcher. Her short stories and essays have been widely published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Hunger Mountain, The Rumpus, Subtropics, Iron Horse Literary Review, and several other journals and magazines. She teaches at The Attic in Portland. Her in-the-process-of-being-updated website is www.lizprato.com.
Want a copy of The Night, and the Rain, and the River? Drop your name in the comments. Random.org will choose the winner on Tuesday, May 20th.