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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Sunday, February 14, 2016

Short Story Writing: Short Story Classified by Charles Raymond Barrett

The treatment demanded by any particular story depends more upon its class than upon the tale itself; a story which recounts an actual occurrence is much less exacting than one which attempts to depict manners; and, in general, the more the writer relies on his art, the more difficult is his task. It is therefore both possible and profitable to separate short stories into definite groups and to consider them collectively rather than as units. This classification is based chiefly upon the necessity of a plot, the purpose or aim of the narrative, and the skill and care required for its successful treatment. It is crude and arbitrary from a literary standpoint, for a good short story is capable of being listed under several different classes, but it serves our practical purpose. Each story is placed according to its dominant class; and the classes are arranged progressively from the simplest to the most difficult of treatment. The examples are presented only as definite illustrations; there is no attempt to classify all short stories, or all the stories of any particular author.
I. The Tale is the relation, in an interesting and literary form, of some simple incident or stirring fact. It has no plot in the sense that there is any problem to unravel, or any change in the relation of the characters; it usually contains action, but chiefly accidents or odd happenings, which depend on their intrinsic interest, without regard to their influence on the lives of the actors.
(a) It is often a genuine True Story, jealously observant of facts, and embellished only to the extent that the author has endeavored to make his style vivid and picturesque. Such stories are a result of the tendency of the modern newspaper to present its news in good literary form. The best illustrations are the occasional contributions of Ray Stannard Baker to McClure's Magazine.
(b) It may, however, be an Imaginative Tale, which could easily happen, but which is the work of the author's imagination. It is a straightforward narration of possible events; if it passes the bounds of probability, or attempts the utterly impossible, it becomes a Story of Ingenuity. It has no love element and no plot; and its workmanship is loose. The best examples are the stories of adventure found in the better class of boys' and children's papers.
II. The Moral Story, in spite of the beautiful examples left us by Hawthorne, is usually too baldly didactic to attain or hold a high place in literature. Its avowed purpose is to preach, and, as ordinarily written, preach it does in the most determined way. Its plot is usually just sufficient to introduce the moral. It is susceptible of a high literary polish in the hands of a master; but when attempted by a novice it is apt to degenerate into a mess of moral platitudes.
(a) The Fable makes no attempt to disguise its didactic purpose, but publishes it by a final labelled "Moral," which epitomizes the lesson it conveys. In Fables the characters are often animals, endowed with all the attributes of men. It early lost favor because of its bald didacticism, and for the last century has been practiced only occasionally. To-day it is used chiefly for the purpose of burlesque and satire, as in George Ade's "Fables in Slang." Æsop is of course the immortal example of this sort of story.
(b) The Story with a Moral attempts to sugar-coat its sermon with a little narrative. It sticks rather closely to facts, and has a slight plot, which shows, or is made to show, the consequences of drinking, stealing, or some other sin. Usually it is either brutally realistic or absurdly exaggerated; but that it can be given literary charm is proved by Hawthorne's use of it. Maria Edgeworth is easily the "awful example" of this class, and her stories, such as "Murad the Unlucky" and "The Grateful Negro," are excellent illustrations of how not to write. Many of Hawthorne's tales come under this head, especially "Lady Eleanor's Mantle," "The Ambitious Guest," and "Miss Bullfrog." The stories of Miss Wilkins usually have a strong moral element, but they are better classed in a later division. Contemporary examples of this style of writing may be found in the pages of most Sunday School and Temperance papers.
(c) The Allegory is the only really literary form of the Moral Story, and the only one which survives to-day. It has a strong moral purpose, but disguises it under the pretense of a well-told story; so that it is read for its story alone, and the reader is conscious of its lesson only when he has finished the narrative. It usually personifies or gives concrete form to the various virtues and vices of men. Examples: Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and "Feathertop." Allegories which deserve the name are sometimes found in current periodicals.
III. The Weird Story owes its interest to the innate love of the supernatural or unexplainable which is a part of our complex human nature—the same feeling which prompts a group of children to beg for "just one more" ghost story, while they are still shaken with the terror of the last one. It may have a definite plot in which supernatural beings are actors; but more often it is slight in plot, but contains a careful psychological study of some of the less pleasant emotions.
(a) The Ghost Story usually has a definite plot, in which the ghost is an actor. The ghost may be a "really truly" apparition, manifesting itself by the conventional methods, and remaining unexplained to the end, as in Irving's "The Spectre Bridegroom," and Kipling's "The Phantom 'Rickshaw;" or it may prove to be the result of a superstitious mind dwelling upon perfectly natural occurrences, as in Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and Wilkins' "A Gentle Ghost." It requires art chiefly to render it plausible; particularly in the latter case, when the mystery must be carefully kept up until the denouement.
(b) The Fantastic Tale treats of the lighter phases of the supernatural. Its style might be well described as whimsical, its purpose is to amuse by means of playful fancies, and it usually exhibits a delicate humor. The plot is slight and subordinate. Examples: Hawthorne's "A Select Party," "The Hall of Fantasy," and "Monsieur du Miroir;" and most of our modern fairy tales.
(c) The Study in Horror was first made popular by Poe, and he has had almost no successful imitators. It is unhealthy and morbid, full of a terrible charm if well done, but tawdry and disgusting if bungled. It requires a daring imagination, a full and facile vocabulary, and a keen sense of the ludicrous to hold these two in check. The plot is used only to give the setting to the story. Most any of Poe's tales would serve as an illustration, but "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Fall of the House of Usher" are particularly apt. Doyle has done some work approaching Poe's, but his are better classed as Stories of Ingenuity.

 IV. The Character Study is a short story in which the chief interest rests in the development and exposition of human character. It may treat of either a type or an individual. Good character delineation is one of the surest proofs of a writer's literary ability.
(a) When the character depicted is inactive the resultant work is not really a story. It usually has no plot, and is properly a Sketch, in which the author makes a psychological analysis of his subject. It inclines to superficiality and is liable to degenerate into a mere detailed description of the person. It demands of the writer the ability to catch striking details and to present them vividly and interestingly. Examples: Hawthorne's "Sylph Etherege" and "Old Esther Dudley;" Poe's "The Man of the Crowd;" James' "Greville Fane" and "Sir Edmund Orme;" Stevenson's "Will o' the Mill;" Wilkins' "The Scent of the Roses" and "A Village Lear."
(b) When the character described is active we have a Character Study proper, built upon a plot out his own personality before us by means of speech and action. The plot is subordinated to the character sketching. The psychological analysis is not presented by the author in so many words, but is deduced by the reader from his observation of the character. Such studies constitute one of the highest art forms of the short story, for the characters must live on the printed page. The short stories of Henry James and of Miss Wilkins could almost be classed in toto under this head; Miss Wilkins' characters are usually types, while those of James are more often individual, though rather unusual. Other good examples are Hawthorne's "Edward Randolph's Portrait;" Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker," and "Wolfert Weber;" Stevenson's "Markheim" and "The Brown Box;" and Davis' "Van Bibber," as depicted in the several stories of "Van Bibber and Others."
Notice that in both subdivisions nearly every title embodies a reference to the character described, showing that the author intentionally set out to sketch a character.
V. The Dialect Story might be considered as a subdivision of the preceding class, since it is in effect a Character Study; but its recent popularity seems to warrant its being treated separately. Its chief distinction is that it is written in the broken English used by the uneducated classes of our own country, and by foreigners. Its plot is either very slight or hopelessly hackneyed, and it is redeemed from sheer commonplace only by its picturesque language. It is usually told in the first person by some English-murdering ignoramus. It is simple, and sometimes has a homely pathos. It may present character as either active or inactive, though usually the former. Its excuse for existence is that it gives truthful expression, in their own language, to the thoughts of certain classes of society; but as written by the amateur the dialect is a fearful and wonderful combination of incorrect English that was never heard from the mouth of any living man. Joel Chandler Harris' "Nights with Uncle Remus" contains genuine dialect; other varieties correctly handled may be found in almost any of the stories of George Washington Cable, Ian Maclaren, and Miss Wilkins.
The Dialect Story as literature and as a field for the novice is considered at length in Chapter VI.

VI. The Parable of the Times is a short story which aims to present a vivid picture of our own times, either to criticise some existing evil, or to entertain by telling us something of how "the other half" of the world lives. It is in a sense a further development of The Tale (Class I.), though it has a more definite plot. It is the most favored form of the short story to-day, and its popularity is responsible for a mess of inane commonplace and bald realism that is written by amateurs, who think they are presenting pen pictures of life. For since its matter is gathered from our everyday lives, it requires some degree of skill to make such narratives individual and interesting.
(a) The Instructive Story of this class may be further subdivided as (1) that which puts present day problems in concrete form, with no attempt at a solution; and (2) that which not only criticises, but attempts also to correct. In either case, it aims to reform by education; it deals with actual problems of humanity rather than with abstract moral truths; and it seeks to amuse always, and to reform if possible. It must not be confused with the Moral Story of Class II. Octave Thanet writes this style of story almost exclusively, and any of her work selected at random would be a good illustration; her "Sketches of American Types" would be listed under (1), and such stories as "The Scab" and "Trusty No. 49" under (2). Under (1) would come also Brander Matthews' "Vignettes of Manhattan;" and under (2) Edward Everett Hale's "The Man Without a Country" and "Children of the Public."
(b) The most usual story of this class is the Story of To-day, which uses present day conditions as a background, and which endeavors only to amuse and interest the reader. Naturally, however, since the scenes and persons described must be new to the reader, such a story is also educating and broadening in its influence. Its plot may seem trivial when analyzed, but it is selected with a view more to naturalness than to strength or complexity. Here we should list nearly all of our modern so-called "society stories," and "stories of manners." Any of Richard Harding Davis' short stories will serve as an excellent illustration, and most of the stories in current periodicals belong in the same category.
VII. The Story of Ingenuity is one of the most modern forms of the short story, and, if I may be pardoned the prolixity, one of the most ingenious. It might be called the "fairy tale of the grown-up," for its interest depends entirely upon its appeal to the love for the marvelous which no human being ever outgrows. It requires fertility of invention, vividness of imagination, and a plausible and convincing style. Yet it is an easy sort of story to do successfully, since ingenuity will atone for many technical faults; but it usually lacks serious interest and is short lived. Poe was the originator and great exemplar of the Story of Ingenuity, and all of his tales possess this cleverness in some degree.
(a) The Story of Wonder has little plot. It is generally the vivid description of some amazing discovery (Poe's "Some Words with a Mummy," Hale's "The Spider's Eye"), impossible invention (Adee's "The Life Magnet," Mitchell's "The Ablest Man in the World"), astounding adventure (Stockton's "Wreck of the Thomas Hyde," Stevenson's "House with Green Blinds"), or a vivid description of what might be (Benjamin's "The End of New York," Poe's "The Domain of Arnheim"). It demands unusual imaginative power.
(b) The Detective Story requires the most complex plot of any type of short story, for its interest depends solely upon the solution of the mystery presented in that plot. It arouses in the human mind much the same interest as an algebraic problem, which it greatly resembles. Poe wrote the first, and probably the best, one in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue;" his "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Gold Bug" are other excellent examples. Doyle, in his "Sherlock Holmes" stories, is a worthy successor of Poe.

VIII. The Humorous Story almost belongs in the category of Stories of Ingenuity, so largely does it depend upon the element of the unusual; but for that fact it should have been listed earlier, because it has little care for plot. Indeed, these stories are the freest of all in their disregard for conventions; with them it is "anything to raise a laugh," and the end is supposed to justify the means. In general they are of transient interest and crude workmanship, little fitted to be called classics; but Mark Twain, at least, has shown us that humor and art are not incompatible.
(a) The simplest form is the Nonsense Story, as it may be justly called. Usually it has the merest thread of plot, but contains odd or grotesque characters whose witty conversation furnishes all the amusement necessary. If the characters do act they have an unfortunate tendency to indulge in horse play. The work of John Kendrick Bangs well illustrates this type of story. His books, "The House Boat on the Styx" and "The Pursuit of the House Boat," are really only collections of short stories, for each chapter can be considered as a whole.
(b) The Burlesque has a plot, but usually one which is absurdly impossible, or which is treated in a burlesque style. The amusement is derived chiefly from the contrast between the matter and the method of its presentation. Most of Stockton's stories are of this type: notably his "The Lady, or the Tiger?" Mark Twain, too, usually writes in this vein, as in "The Jumping Frog" and "The Stolen White Elephant."
IX. The Dramatic Story is the highest type of the short story. It requires a definite but simple plot, which enables the characters to act out their parts. In its perfect form it is the "bit of real life" which it is the aim of the short story to present. It is the story shorn of all needless verbiage, and told as nearly as possible in the words and actions of the characters themselves; and it possesses a strong climax. Therefore it demands the most careful and skillful workmanship, from its conception to its final polishing. It is the most modern type of the short story.
(a) The short story has Dramatic Form when the author's necessary comments correspond to the stage directions of the drama. Such a story is, in fact, a miniature drama, and is often capable of being acted just as it stands. It has a definite plot, but it is developed by dialogue as frequently as by action. It is the extreme of the modern tendency toward dramatic narrative, and is just a little too "stagey" and artificial to be a perfect short story. It is, however, in good literary standing and in good favor with the public, and it is most excellent practice for the tyro, for in it he has to sink himself completely in his characters. Examples: Hope's "The Dolly Dialogues;" Kipling's "The Story of the Gadsbys;" and Howells' one act parlor plays, like "The Parlor Car," "The Register," "The Letter," and "Unexpected Guests."
(b) A short story has Dramatic Effect when it deals with a single crisis, conveys a single impression, is presented chiefly by the actors themselves, and culminates in a single, perfect climax. It may, or may not, be capable of easy dramatization. It is less artificial than the story of pure Dramatic Form, but is just as free from padding and irrelevant matter, and just as vivid in effect. It allows of greater art and finish, for the writer has wider freedom in his method of presentation. Examples: Poe's "'Thou Art the Man!'" and "Berenice;" James' "The Lesson of the Master" and "A Passionate Pilgrim;" Wilkins' "A New England Nun" and "Amanda and Love;" Stevenson's "The Isle of the Voices;" and Irving's "The Widow and Her Son" and "Rip Van Winkle." But, indeed, every good short story belongs in this class, which is not so much a certain type of the short story, as the "honor class" to which each story seeks admittance.
Every story cited in this book, unless otherwise located, can be found in one of the appended published collections of short stories:
George Ade: "Fables in Slang."
John Kendrick Bangs: "The Bicyclers;" "Ghosts I Have Met;" "The Houseboat on the Styx;" "Mantel-Piece Minstrels, and Other Stories;" "Paste Jewels;" "The Pursuit of the Houseboat;" "The Water-Ghost and Others."
J. M. Barrie: "An Auld Licht Manse;" "Auld Licht Idyls."
George Washington Cable: "Old Creole Days;" "Strange True Stories of Louisiana."
Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain): "Merry Tales;" "The Stolen White Elephant."
Richard Harding Davis: "Cinderella and Others;" "The Exiles and Other Stories;" "Gallegher, and Other Stories;" "The Lion and the Unicorn;" "Van Bibber and Others."
Charles Dickens: "Christmas Books;" "Christmas Stories;" "Sketches by Boz."
A. Conan Doyle: "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes;" "The Captain of the Pole Star;" "The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard;" "Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes;" "My Friend the Murderer;" "Round the Red Lamp."
Maria Edgeworth: "Popular Tales."
Alice French (Octave Thanet): "A Book of True Lovers;" "The Missionary Sheriff;" "Stories of a Western Town."
H. Rider Haggard: "Allan's Wife."
Joel Chandler Harris: "Daddy Jake, the Runaway;" "Nights with Uncle Remus;" "Tales of Home Folks in Peace and War."
Bret Harte: "Colonel Starbottle's Client;" "In the Hollow of the Hills;" "The Luck of Roaring Camp;" "Mrs. Skagg's Husbands;" "Tales of the Argonauts;" "Thankful Blossom;" "The Story of a Mine."
Nathaniel Hawthorne: "Mosses from an Old Manse;" "Twice Told Tales."
Anthony Hope: "The Dolly Dialogues."
William Dean Howells: "A Fearful Responsibility and Other Stories;" "The Mouse-Trap and Other Farces;" "The Sleeping Car and Other Farces."
Washington Irving: "The Sketch Book;" "Tales of a Traveler."
Henry James: "The Aspern Papers;" "The Author of Beltraffio;" "The Lesson of the Master;" "A London Life;" "A Passionate Pilgrim;" "The Real Thing."
Rudyard Kipling: "The Day's Work;" "In Black and White;" "Indian Tales;" "The Jungle Book;" "Life's Handicap;" "Many Inventions;" "The Phantom 'Rickshaw;" "Plain Tales from the Hills;" "The Second Jungle Book;" "Soldiers Three and Military Tales;" "Soldier Stories;" "Under the Deodars."
Brander Matthews: "Outlines in Local Color;" "Tales of Fantasy and Fact;" "Vignettes of Manhattan."
Guy de Maupassant: "The Odd Number."
Thomas Nelson Page: "The Burial of the Guns;" "In Ole Virginia."
Scribner's series: "Short Stories by American Authors."
Robert Louis Stevenson: "The Island Nights' Entertainments;" "The Merry Men;" "New Arabian Nights."
Frank R. Stockton: "Amos Kilbright;" "The Lady, or the Tiger?" "Rudder Grange;" "A Story Teller's Pack."
John Watson (Ian Maclaren): "Auld Lang Syne;" "Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush."
Mary E. Wilkins: "A Humble Romance;" "The Love of Parson Lord;" "A New England Nun;" "The Pot of Gold;" "Silence;" "Young Lucretia."

Excerpted From Short Story Writing, by Charles Raymond Barrett

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