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Pow! Zap! What Short Stories Can Teach Novelists

Novels are my second love, the roast beef in my diet. And I relish the meal. But I down short stories like chocolates. For their density. For their Pow! of feeling and their electric insight.

I’d venture to say that much of what you need to know about writing a novel can be learned through reading and analyzing short stories.

If I want a quick reminder on effective starts, I’ll look at novels, but I’ll also turn to short stories–even for more complex matters like voice. In the time it takes to read and analyze a novel, you can read say ten short stories and see ten different approaches to a given problem. I have close to two-dozen short story writers whose work I look at again and again. These are four in current rotation.

Casting about for how late to start your novel? Check out the first sentence of Amy Bloom’s short story, “Love Is Not a Pie.”

In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding.

Twenty-two words in and the protagonist’s mom is dead and her engagement in question. No messing about with the mother’s long (or short) illness or the errant fiancé’s many flaws. Add the pairing of “boring” and “heartbreaking” with funeral, and we know we are in the hands of a wry, discriminating protagonist. (That fiancé is likely toast.)

Or Ethan Canin’s lede to “The Year of Getting to Know Us.”

I told my father not to worry, that love is what matters, and that in the end, when he is loosed from his body, he can look back and say without blinking that he did all right by me, his son, and that I loved him.

And he said, “Don’t talk about things you know nothing about.”

The author softens us with a son’s forgiveness tenderly proffered to his dying dad, the better to slap us with the father’s stinging rebuke. Empathy for the protagonist? Check. Conflict? Check. Desire to find out how these two came to such an impasse? Check. In two sentences.

Looking for tips on voice? Look no further than James Joyce’s Dubliners, where his chosen syntax and vocabulary are as close to character as DNA is to individual. Consider the first sentence of “A Painful Case”:

Mr. James Duffy lived in Chapelizod because he wished to live as far as possible from the city of which he was a citizen and because he found all the other suburbs of Dublin mean, modern and pretentious.

Mr. James Duffy is a painful case. He is estranged not only from his city and friends but from himself—so estranged that he is introduced with a title, “Mr.” And only after you hack your way through two dependent clauses and three prepositional phrases can you locate Mr.’s home. Awkward!

Now compare that unwieldy first sentence to that of “The Dead”:

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.

A relatively simple sentence for a relatively simple character. But there is the jar of “literally.” Busy as Lily was, she most certainly was not running around on bloody stumps. Joyce was a precision writer. This misuse of “literally” is no accident. It accomplishes at least two purposes: it reveals Lily’s uneducated status and it foreshadows violence.

For prose transparent as water, look to Edith Pearlman. In “Tenderfoot” a story from her most recent collection, Honeydew, Pearlman establishes setting and character simultaneously.

Tenderfoot was a pedicure parlor on Main Street near Channing. Two reclining chairs—usually only one was in use—faced the street through a large plate glass window. And so customers, alone with Paige, got a kind of public privacy—anybody could see them, no one but Paige could hear them. Paige was an expert listener—rarely commenting on what she heard, never repeating it.

All the characters in “Tenderfoot” have souls calloused by loss. Paige lost her husband to war. Now she exfoliates, ministers, to clients’ horned feet to reveal the soft flesh beneath. One day a new client sits in her chair, and in his way, he kicks through her defenses so that she can finally grieve. Pearlman writes the way Olympic skaters skate, making the most difficult maneuvers seem easy.

Short fiction can also teach structure—not of an entire novel—but a scene or a chapter. Because you can read the thing in one sitting, see the turns and the arc and analyze the beast—all within an hour or two. They go down so easy and deliver that electric Zap! Bang! Kapow!

Originally appeared on Dead Darlings.

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