Read Like A Writer

There are two ways to learn how to write fiction: by reading it and by writing it. Yes, you can learn lots about writing stories in workshops, in writing classes and writing groups, at writers' conferences. You can learn technique and process by reading the dozens of books like this one on fiction writing and by reading articles in writers' magazines. But the best teachers of fiction are the great works of fiction themselves. You can learn more about the structure of a short story by reading Anton Chekhov's 'Heartache' than you can in a semester of Creative Writing 101. If you read like a writer, that is, which means you have to read everything twice, at least. When you read a story or novel the first time, just let it happen. Enjoy the journey. When you've finished, you know where the story took you, and now you can go back and reread, and this time notice how the writer reached that destination. Notice the choices he made at each chapter, each sentence, each word. (Every word is a choice.) You see now how the transitions work, how a character gets across a room. All this time you're learning. You loved the central character in the story, and now you can see how the writer presented the character and rendered her worthy of your love and attention. The first reading is creative—you collaborate with the writer in making the story. The second reading is critical.

John Dufresne, from his book, The Lie That Tells A Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction


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Friday, January 29, 2016

The Art of the Short Story by Carl H. Grabo (1913)

The principles of narrative structure which I have set down here are for the most part true of the novel as well as of the short story, though for conciseness and clearness I have discussed their application chiefly to the latter. They are, most of them, commonly enough held, though in my college work I have felt the need of a book which should collect and relate them in simple, orderly, and yet comprehensive fashion. The material is scattered, and the amateur writer cannot easily find it.

For other than commonplace and accepted principles of structure I have relied chiefly on Stevenson, whose letters and essays are filled with comments of technical interest to writers. It is unfortunate that he never wrote his promised work, a "small and arid book" upon the art of fiction. Most of my indebtedness to Stevenson is specifically acknowledged in the following pages.

The method of the book is in part based upon Poe's The Philosophy of Composition. In this he traces the development of The Raven, making clear the steps of the creative process. Unfortunately he did not perform a like office for his short stories, an analysis which would have been even more valuable. There is curiously little material upon the psychology of story composition, the very thing which the beginner most needs, for he is too often of the opinion that the men he seeks to emulate work by mental processes too mysterious and profound for his understanding. There are invaluable hints — if skilled writers would but give them — which might save the beginner much time and mistaken effort and as well inspire him with some small confidence in the methods which he pursues, whatever his despair at the immediate results thereof.

Could I analyze the masterpieces of the short story with certainty and exactness, so that their inception and development might be made clear and explicit, I should rely upon them alone to illustrate the mental processes of story writing. But so exact an analysis is possible only to the author. I have, therefore, in addition to quoting from Stevenson, Poe, and Henry James, endeavored from my own experimental knowledge to analyze the way in which the mind seeks and selects a story idea and then proceeds to develop it. I trust that what I have found true of my experience may be of some value to others who are seeking to learn the difficult art of working effectively at story composition.

I am greatly indebted to the following members of the English department of the University of Chicago for helpful criticism and advice: Mrs. Edith Foster Flint, Mr. Robert M. Lovett, and Mr. James W. Linn.


I. The Short Story I

II. The Essentials of Narrative 6

III. The Point of View 21

IV. The Unities of Action, Time, and Place 37

V. Exposition and Preparation 65

VI. Introductions. The Order of Narration 96

VII. Character-Drawing 115

VIII. Description of Person and Place 143

IX. Dialogue 175

X. Types of Story Ideas 198

XI. Titles and Names 214

XII. Suggestion and Restraint 227

XIII. Unity of Tone 244

IX. Dialogue 175

X. Types Of Story Ideas  198

XI. Titles And Names  214

XII. Suggestion And Restraint  227

XIII. Unity Of Tone  244

XIV. The Psychology of Story Writing 265

XV. Conclusion 284

Appendix: Poe's "The Philosophy of Composition" 295

Index 313

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