by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
I started writing short stories eighteen months ago. Seduced by the competitions and submission opportunities, I thought it would be easy money and acclaim – spend a week (or a weekend) writing 500-3,000 words, hit send, and wait for the shortlist nominations to roll in.
Needless to say, the reality does not match the fiction. When my initial efforts failed to fire, I got frustrated. But I was still seduced by the bright lights, so I kept writing and submitting. And then something strange happened – I fell in love with the short story form. And I committed myself to teaching myself on how to write a great one.
And that’s when I started reading short stories. I know, I know – how did I think I could write a short story when I wasn’t reading them? Like I said, I was naive – I thought I could just apply my novel writing sensibilities. It was still writing. It was just with less words.
I’ve been trying to uncover and distil the magic behind great short stories for a year now. And it was only last night – while I was sitting in a French bistrot in the middle of Sydney, drinking the perfect Hendricks G&T, reading Lincoln in the Bardo, and waiting to see George Saunders at the Sydney Writers Festival – that I got a taste of it.
And, happily, it’s something that can be applied to both short stories and novels.
Decoding the Special Sauce
George Saunders is a master storyteller. I’ve read and re-read so many of his short stories, and each time I find myself challenged, entertained, enlightened, inspired, and (to be honest) a little awestruck. When I first tried to figure out the special sauce ingredients, I could see the things that other people had found: efficiency of prose, specificity, sensory details, evocative nouns and verbs, authentic dialogue, empathetic characterisation. But, for me, I still couldn’t figure out the super secret ingredient.
It’s like this. Geppetto was a fine craftsman; he could carve the most beautiful puppet, perfectly shape it and paint it – but without that fairy and her sparkly wand, Pinocchio would have stayed a pretty lump of wood.
You can have a strong plot and turn a pretty phrase, but that only makes a story good. You need something else to make it great.
It’s all about the plot
So, last night, as I was sitting there, reading the first few pages of Lincoln in the Bardo, it all came together in one KO sucker-punch. The magic ingredient – the thing that makes a good story great, the je ne sais quoi that (is part of what) makes George Saunders a literary genius – is how the plot is treated.
Anyone who has read my blog before knows that I am obsessed with plot – how to create a compelling, coherent, plausible arc of character development and events that tells a story of change, growth, and resolution. Having a plot is essential for good storytelling – stories have to have purpose and meaning, otherwise they are just pretty words on the page (and pretty words on the page do not make a story).
Knowing how to plot is important, but (as I learned last night), how you show it is just as important.
With Saunders’ work, you can sense the plot is there but you never see it. There’s a strong sense of structural integrity, of the story moving in a certain direction and with purpose, but it never makes itself openly apparent. Lincoln in the Bardo is a classic example of this – there’s no narrative exposition; the story is told, not explained. The plot is always inferred – through character actions and dialogue – never shown.
The Red Bow (which you can read here) is another brilliant example (and perhaps my favourite Saunders’ short). Throughout the story, you’re never in doubt about the plot, but you never see it directly – it reveals itself in a process of discovery and you discover deeper layers of it as you read.
IMAGE by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash
Exoskeleton vs Endoskeleton
The plot is the skeleton of any story, but stories can be exoskeletal (skeleton on the outside) or endoskeletal (skeleton on the inside). And the best ones, in my opinion, are endoskeletal – always hinting at the plot (a sense of purpose and direction, a sense of structural integrity and solidity, a sense of shape and dimensions) but never actually shining a direct light on it.
In this way, a great story is a sleight of hand – a watch that hides its mechanisms below the face, a magic trick that never openly reveals its secrets, a puzzle to be solved. It is a decadent meal at a fancy restaurant without knowing the recipe, the sensation of rain on bare skin without analysing the chemical composition of the water droplets, the magic of listening to a piece of music on the radio without needing to understand the science and technology behind the recording and transmission.
The plot never pushes beyond its role as structure into narrative. (Bones protruding from the body is never pleasant – better to cover them with flesh and skin and hair).
So, while plot is something that every writer should know intimately, it is also something that should never be directly shared with the reader. When plot skeletons start showing, it is a red flag that you have moved into explaining the story, rather than telling it.
Monica Ali, in her judge’s report of the 2018 Bridport Prize, wrote:
Reading through this year’s entries I thought a lot about what makes a great short story truly great. The best ones make the back of your neck tingle. They make you feel newly alive to the world. They suck you in fast, and they do it by weaving character, setting, story, voice, dialogue and whatever other elements of the craft, into a scene that makes you wonder what will happen next, what has happened before. Many of the less successful stories, though fluently written, relied too heavily on narrative summary, so that the reader was kept at a distance, relying on second hand information instead of watching the story unfold.
There’s a lot of writing advice out there about “show don’t tell”, but maybe another way of saying that is “tell the story, don’t explain it”.
WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU STRUGGLING TO BE PLOT-STRONG, BUT NOT PLOT-HEAVY? TELL ME ABOUT IT IN THE COMMENTS!
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