Beautiful Blasts

photo by Gabe Shaughnessy

by Alison MacLeod

‘The universe is made of stories, not atoms.’   I like these words.  They belong to the American poet Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) but all writers – poets, short story writers, novelists – instinctively know the power of the small but singular story.  It’s easy to overlook it, to not bother to see, and by that I mean to see as a writer, but as Flaubert said, ‘Even the smallest thing has in it something which is unknown.’  As writers, each of us is trying to see into the unknown, to bring something of it into our readers’ range of vision; to surprise ourselves with its discovery.  We’re trying to release from those smallest things their beautiful blasts of light.

That’s big talk about small things, I know.  But short stories deserve big talk.  They’re short but the good ones are anything but slight.  They’re not practice runs for novels.  The good ones offer a life we experience in motion, page by page – intensely, intimately – before emerging fifteen, twenty or thirty minutes later, moved, startled or delighted, but changed.  Those brief lives have fused with our own.  It’s a live experience, all the more keenly felt because of the form’s brevity.

If you’re writing stories, here are a few bits of advice I wish I’d had when I was beginning to write:

1.    Don’t start with what you know.  Start with what you don’t yet know.  Start with a subject or an image that fascinates you.  Find out all you can.  Take risks.  Few story writers ever know if a story will come off until it suddenly does.  You need to keep your nerve.  You need to be willing to get it wrong.  You need to do all the work it takes to sieve it from the unknown world into the known.

2.    Stories are, above all, about characters – about lives unfolding in pivotal moments.  For all of us, deceptively small events lead to many of the great turning points in our lives.  That’s crucial for a story writer to remember.  Don’t get obsessed by plot.  Plot is just the vehicle that allows your character to unfold and to be seen.  Avoid high drama.  Less will be more, I promise.  Short stories are so easily swamped by drama.  They’re swift-moving barrels going over Niagara Falls.  Keep yours strong and focused.  You don’t have time to indulge or digress or do much in the way of back-story.  Keep it moving.  Keep it water-tight.

3.    New story writers often struggle to make their stories go.  Think of it in these terms.  Your character wants something – and what he or she wants will reveal to the reader who he/she really is and what his/her innermost self is.  Maybe they desire an end to their loneliness.  Or time to be alone.  Maybe they dream of pot-holing.  Maybe they want a brand new steam iron.  Or a cheap necklace made of candy hearts.  What they want is up to them; you, their author, need to find out why they want it.  You need to remain open to their prompts and  follow where they lead.  Simple desires often hold profound truths.  After the story is ‘out’, you can start to edit, shape and hammer.

4.    Next: your character can’t get what he/she wants.  There are obstacles.  There is trouble.  They are blocked.  There is tension.  (See?  Here is your plot unfolding without you having to think, in a mechanical way, what is my plot?)  The obstacles bring on a dilemma.  A decision must be made.   Something is at stake.  What is it?  To achieve their desire, they risk losing something.  What?  Your character has to act.  The way he or she does under this pressure will reveal to your reader who he/she really is.  We’ll see the human condition coming to life.  That’s what literature is after all.  We’ll see the struggle (whether comic or poignant or startling) of someone struggling to be more fully himself, to be more fully alive.  Truth will flare on the page.

5.    Read voraciously.  Read classic stories.  Read the collections of story writers working now.  Read it all.  Other writers will help you to recognise what it is that fascinates you; what your own territory is as a writer.  As you read, read as a writer.  If a story drew you in, re-read it at least once.  Look at its opening paragraph especially.  How did it make you read on?  Look at the last paragraph.  In great stories, the story resonates outward beyond the story, like ripples from a stone cast in a lake.  It’s a wonderful thing for the reader.  Read and try to weigh up those dynamics I discuss above: a character on the brink of change; the catalyst of desire; the appearance of obstacles; the element of uncertainty/mystery; the need for a character to act; the pressure to become.

I won’t lie.  It’s hard going most of the time.  Stories have many elements.  They don’t hit the page running at the same time.  If you believe in your story though, you stay with it until it’s safely delivered from Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘universe of stories’; until it’s brought from the ‘there’ into the ‘here’; until its ‘this-ness’ has emerged on the page – a process James Joyce called ‘the revelation of the what-ness of the thing’.  Some of the mystery, the unknowable, will trail after it.  Don’t worry.  Don’t try to tidy it up.  Ambiguity is not the same thing as obscurity or vagueness  – try to work out the difference – and resist the urge to explain your story or spell out its meaning.  Your reader will know from the remnants of that mystery, from the residue of the unknown, that it’s a real story and not a fake.  Good stories, true stories, finally, are bigger than we are.  They outstrip even their writers, and they defy attempts to explain them.  Only the story – alive and experienced – can explain the story.


This article is reprinted with the kind permission of The London Writers Club, who first published it in 2010.  You can find out more about them at


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15 thoughts on “Beautiful Blasts

  1. Cheers Alison, I’ll certainly drink to that vision. Needless to say I think the world of Thresholds.

  2. No rubbish there! Besides, we love to dream that Thresholds will one day be a happy extension of pub chat; that people will go straight home (or perhaps not quite so straight) from pub quiz to at-home-with-Thresholds to catch the latest from the heady world of short fiction. You are in fact blazing the trail, and we thank you 🙂

  3. Shame about my rubbish punctuation though – teach me to post comments post-pub (!)

  4. I’ve come a bit late to this thread having been out of town and away from internet for a week – but just wanted to say what a treat it is to read such an interesting discussion on Kafka.

    In my book Kafka’s stories are less about either character or plot and more about about language, tone and atmosphere. In his short stories especially he seems to unravel the whole notion of the self in such a way that what’s left -is this residue of existential angst., as in ‘The Householders Concern’ – where that residual anxiety is all.

  5. Thanks Alison. I’ve blogged this. Great article. Have fun on Saturday in Bristol. Wish I could be there.

  6. Alison – great post. I’ve sent the link out on Twitter, as I expect others many also have done. Thanks for introducing me to Thresholds. Hope all is well. Just got back from the Fish Awards (great fun).

  7. Hi Sean, Thanks for your thoughts here. You’re right. The non-Anglo short story traditions (especially) are less overtly character-based and often (though not by any means always) more conceptual or more abstract/metaphysical. That said, I would still say that the power of any short story lies in the character(s) through whom it is lived and felt. Plot or predicament in the short story, even more than in the novel, is almost purely an expression of character – even if we feel as if we’re reading to find out what happens. To my mind, everything in powerful stories comes down to the human pulse – or the evocation of character.

    In Kafka’s ‘The Metamporphosis’, there is predicament and plight, absolutely – a brutal one – but the story that begins on the terrible day that Gregor awakes as a dung beetle depends, above all, on the human nuances of character; of both Gregor’s character and those of his family. Without them, without Kafka’s delicate skill, the story would be an over-developed special-effect.

    (Lordie. I wish this system didn’t object to paragraphing!!!)

    Only Borges can do Borges – he’s a tradition unto himself – but, even in a metaphysical story like ‘The Aleph’, the plot, again, would simply be pyrotechnics without the narrator’s overwhelming anxiety, his absolute need to go to that house, and his psychological change at the end: ‘I feared there was nothing that had the power to surprise or astonish me anymore. I feared that I would never again be without a sense of deja vu.’

    It seems to me that even in the most powerfully ‘uncanny’ or ‘spooky’ stories – stories again that appear to be mostly plot, predicament or reality-bender – it is the foundation in character that means the story grows into a living story – and isn’t merely, in the end, a flat anecdote (a strange thing happened to me/him/her on the way to….) pretending to be a story.

    If I’m honest, I’m not too interested, as a reader or as a writer, in the ‘vignette’ sort of story – the extended character sketch. They usually bore me, well written though they might be at the level of the sentence. Vignettes are static; stories MOVE. So that type of piece is not what I’m talking about in the above in trying to highlight the power of character. I suppose I’m cosying up to V.S. Pritchett who wrote: ‘ A short story is. . .frequently the celebration of character at bursting point.’ If stories are lives in flux, in transformation, ‘the life’ is vital.

    But five pieces of writing advice will always fall hopelessly short – I’m always conscious of that – and yet that shortfall is probably as it should be!

    Nice chatting.

    all the best,

  8. Thank you, Ritabarzo. I agree! So much depends on holding the reader’s attention while conveying a whole world at speed, in just ten or twelve pages for example. It”s slippery stuff : a clay pot, wet on a potter’s wheel. The writer has to hold it together, while staying true to the story and the form that story wants.

    You have a lovely summer, too.

  9. Thanks Alison, this is an invigorating read and also I think it is particularly pertinent to point out the importance of the short story in its own right. I think it is much harder to get right in a sense as there is less time to capture the reader’s attention. Happy summer!

  10. Excellent, especially the focus on desire and movement. I’m not so sure about 2., though – are Kafka’s stories about characters (as opposed to predicaments)? Are Borges’s, or Lovecraft’s? I would have thought how swathes of literature aren’t focused on psychology in quite the way point 2. suggests short fiction is focused.

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