Leonard Nash, "Show me a Story"
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.
You’ve written a short story, reread it once or twice, trimmed some words here and there, run a spellcheck, and you’re feeling confident. So you share this new masterpiece with your writing workshop, and a week later, the participants tear it apart. Or maybe your story is rejected by one literary magazine after another. There are no magic answers, but allow me to offer a few suggestions, by no means a complete list, and in no particular order. Much of it might sound familiar. That’s OK. Sometimes we need reminding.
1: When I approach a short story (or a novel), I want the author to grab me by the lapels, pull me in close, get in my face, and tell me (better yet, show me) a story. As early as the first word, suggest urgency, trouble, momentum, movement, conflict, fragility—some threat to the status quo. Suggest that something is out of kilter.
Here’s the first line of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “Tom!”
One word, and already that boy’s in trouble.
2: By your thirtieth birthday, you’ve lived some 10,950 days, plus a handful of “leap days.” How many do you remember? Explore the days in your central character’s life that changed everything, or at least, something. If your character won’t remember this day, why will we remember your story?
3: Begin your short story in media res, or “in the middle of things.” Start as close to the end as possible. The shorter the piece, the more important this is. The triggering instant might involve a wedding, a death, an accident, a night of drinking, the loss of a tedious job (John Updike’s “A&P”) a move to a new house or a new town, an accident, the arrival of an unwanted houseguest (Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”) or an unwanted road trip (Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”). You could begin with your character walking down a street and stepping into a coffee shop. There’s no end to the possibilities—but something should be happening. And if you must delve into flashback on page two, maybe you started in the wrong place.
4: A story begins when you take a compelling character and place him into a difficult situation. Study a stack of short story collections and anthologies. Notice how accomplished authors handle first lines, first paragraphs, first pages. A central character is often introduced, along with a setting, point of view, interesting actions, and the sense that things are out of kilter. Have you done this in your story?
Try this: Lop off your first sentence, then the rest of your first paragraph, and the second paragraph, and maybe the whole first page. Then challenge the next page, and the next. Whatever you cut—set it aside. You can always retrieve it, but you probably won’t. First drafts involve introductory jibber-jabber that readers won’t miss—and that editors won’t read. In fiction workshops, you’ll hear the term “murder your darlings.” It’s good advice.
5: You could end a fast-paced, energetic story with the line, “And then I woke up and realized it was all a dream.” You could. But don’t. (Yes, there’s a dream sequence in my story example, but it comes at the beginning, and it’s not a trick.)
6: Stories happen somewhere. Characters impact their surroundings, and surroundings impact characters. Reread Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Consider why it takes place in a train station. Once you understand what “Hills” is about, you’ll understand the urgency introduced by the setting—the choice of directions, the compression of time, the irrevocable choices.
7: Here’s how the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary defines synesthesia: “A concomitant sensation and especially a subjective sensation or image of a sense (as of color) other than the one (as of sound) being stimulated.” Huh?
In other words, readers will sense something other than, or in addition to, the sensory details in your story. Example: “Grandma opened the oven, pulled the chocolate cake from the center rack, and set it on the countertop.” Raise your hand if you see a kitchen (even though no kitchen is mentioned) and you can smell that cake (even though the aroma was not described). If I mention that there’s a Steinway grand piano in the adjacent room, you might hear music, even though the instrument isn’t being played. Or you might feel a sense of pathos, seeing as how a magnificent instrument is sitting idle. Or you might see the polished wooden lid, or the bright black and white keys. By way of synesthesia, authors and readers work together to create something new, something unexpected, and perhaps something powerful and memorable.
8: You know this one: Nix the adverbs! As you revise, notice how often they create redundancy. She sprinted quickly. He stuttered haltingly. Or how they try, but fail, to salvage weak verbs. He said loudly. She suggested urgently. In tag lines, a simple “said” is best. Whatever emotion you’re seeking through adverbs is better conveyed through well-crafted dialogue, action, fresh metaphorical language, and concrete details.
Not convinced? Substitute the opposite of an adverb and see if the result sounds ridiculous. If so, your adverb is redundant. “The bomb exploded suddenly, scattering debris across six city blocks.” It would be silly to say, “The bomb exploded gradually.”
Search your manuscript for “ly” and challenge each adverb. You’ll cut some and move on. Other times you’ll introduce powerful, efficient, specific verbs.
9: Remove the clichés and other trite phrases. Strive to make every sentence—every phrase—original. No “furrowed brows,” no “winces,” no “shrugged shoulders,” no “craned necks,” and please, no “his eyes grew wide.” Stock character descriptions, and trite references to reflexive human actions, are not interesting. Focus on choices characters make and show their specific, purposeful actions. Focus on what characters do, not what their bodies do.
10: Writing a short story is difficult. Accept it, or quit and try something else.
11: Search your story for forms of “began” and “start” and edit your way out of them. Everything “starts” or “begins.” Just get to it.
12: Forms of “to have” (have, has, had) and “to be” (am, is, are, was, were, be, being been) are the blandest verbs in English. Challenge these as you revise. Many are opportunities for compression and fresh language.
13: Don’t waste words explaining how characters are not doing or saying anything. Look for phrases such as “she was silent” or “he stood there motionless.” The absence of dialogue or action conveys the same thing, using zero words. And beware of characters, particularly central characters, who aren’t actively engaged in their scenes. Your central character must not be a passive observer.
14: Unless something important is happening, avoid perfunctory (and wordy) greetings and salutations and handshakes at the beginning and conclusion of your scenes. Nobody cares.
15: Avoid choreographed dialogue or action, such as two or more characters spontaneously doing the same thing or speaking identical sentences. You don’t want your fiction sounding like dialogue from a bad sitcom, or like children shouting “Me!” in response to “Who wants ice cream?”
16: Avoid “jump” unless your character is actually leaping across some physical space. Characters don’t “jump to their feet.” They stand. They rise. They get up. And unless your characters are engaged in a competition, they do not “race” to answer the door. Also, do not “cry” or “laugh” or “chuckle” or “scream” a line of dialogue.
Similarly, you won’t convey humor by having your characters laugh, and you won’t convey emotion by showing them cry. Characters laugh and cry now and then (but not too often, please). Such responses in your readers must be earned. Go back and read stories that made you laugh or made you cry. I’ll bet the triggering language in those stories did not involve characters laughing or crying.
17: In the first scene, and in every scene, place your characters into situations that force them to act, to make choices, do something observable that could have long-term consequences. Confront them with trouble, big and small, that you would not want to face in real life. Will your central character’s life be changed by her choices and actions, or as the result of her successes and failures? The answers must be “Yes.”
18: You’ve been asked, “What does your central character want?” and you’ve said, “He wants to be happy,” or “She wants to feel needed,” etc. We’ve all struggled with this one. The want should be observable and it can be simple. A character might want to buy a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. But is that what he needs? Maybe, if he’s the beverage manager of a hotel. If he’s an unemployed alcoholic whose wife and kids are living on the street, he needs to sober up and take responsibility for himself and his family.
Compared to the want, a character’s need is often more complicated, harder to define, and less observable, but it’s far more important. This could involve validation, security, comfort, love, optimism, joy, recovery, companionship, or maybe the ability to accept what cannot be changed, such as the death of a loved one. When the want and the need don’t jibe, you’ve got conflict, and conflict triggers stories.
19: Read your story aloud. Utter ever sentence, every word, every syllable, and account for every punctuation mark. Trust your ear. If you pause in the absence of a comma, perhaps one is needed. Keep a grammar handbook on your writing desk, alongside your unabridged dictionary and thesaurus. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are not guessing games. Learn the rules.
Speaking of punctuation, try to avoid semi-colons in fiction, along with anything else that looks technical and reminds us of the writer’s keyboard. For this reader, boldface, all caps, large fonts, and intrusive symbols threaten the fictive dream.
20: In your first draft, knock yourself out. Don’t worry about clichés and adverbs stock facial gestures and all the rest. Have fun. Be playful. You’re creating a new world and populating it with people and events. Successful fiction is created in the many stages of revision. Just as Michelangelo removed everything that’s not an angel from a piece of marble, remove everything that obscures your story.
* * *
Excerpt from “You Can’t Get There from Here” Leonard Nash, © 2007
After I closed out the cash registers, locked the safe, set the alarm, said goodbye to my cashiers, the stock boys, and the new journeyman butcher we hired to work the evening shift, I walked home, changed out of my work clothes, and made a Salisbury steak dinner in the microwave, something we had to remove from the freezer case because it was a few days expired. Food is food as far as I’m concerned, so long as it doesn’t leave me feeling hungry or nauseated. While I ate, I channel surfed between Martha Stewart baking sugar cookies on the Home and Garden Network, some mafia movie on pay-per-view, and a Marlins/Dodgers game on ESPN. They were into extra innings when I turned off my TV to see if I could try and sleep awhile. But before long my dreams started again.
I was in the attic of a huge house, and in the dream, I awoke to the sound of footsteps, so I stayed real quiet, but these rigid footsteps got closer and closer, like high-heeled shoes tapping across a parquet dance floor. So I said hello, and get this—as I opened my eyes, a gorgeous young woman sat down beside me on the bed. She had long auburn hair, and OK, maybe she needed to lose a few pounds, but she smelled sweet, like a freshly-baked peach cobbler or a summer nectarine. Maybe it was only that new herbal shampoo we started carrying. So when she said hello back to me, I opened my eyes for real this time, but all I could make out was the old bureau I found in the alley last summer, my clock radio, and my work pants slung over the recliner, at which point I was back in my third floor efficiency at the Coral Terrace Hotel. And before long, I was out of the bed and dressed for another night out at the Coral Gate Diner. It’s a place where I can get some brewed coffee and a reasonably fresh meal. It’s a place where the demons can’t get me.
* * *
LEONARD NASH received a Florida Book Award Silver Medal for his debut collection, You Can’t Get There from Here and Other Stories
(Kitsune Books, 2007).
Nash holds an M.F.A. from Florida International University. His work has appeared in the South Dakota Review
, The Seattle Review
, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel
, Gulf Stream Magazine
, Miami Magazine
, and the forthcoming anthology 15 Views of Miami
(Burrow Press, 2013). He has taught creative writing at Florida International University and the Florida Center for the Literary Arts at Miami Dade College. Please visit www.LeonardNash.com