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 www.londonwritersclub.com.