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: Methods Of Narration by Charles Raymond Barrett


Not only must you have a story to tell, but you must tell it well. The charm and interest of a story come not from the plot itself but from your handling of it. The question of the proper method of narration is to a considerable extent a matter of suitability—of giving the narrative an appropriate setting; it is also a matter of the point of view of the narrator—whether he is to tell the story as one of the actors, or simply as an impersonal observer. A dozen master story writers would tell the same tale in a dozen different ways, and each of them would seem to be the right way; for each writer would view the events from a particular angle, and would make his point of view seem the natural one. But the novice is not always happy in his choice of a view point; or rather, he lacks the knowledge and experience that would teach him how to treat his subject from the particular side from which he has chosen to consider it. Yet a capable and clever[120] writer may sometimes find himself puzzled to choose between a number of methods, any one of which seems appropriate and any one of which he feels himself competent to handle satisfactorily: the question is which one will be for him the most successful method of exploiting his thoughts.

That question should be settled with regard to the suitability of the method to the matter of the story—and here suitability is synonymous with naturalness. It must not be forgotten that story writing is only a modern phase of the world-old custom of story telling, and that the printed page should appear as natural and easy to the eye as the voice would to the ear. When in the twilight the grandmother gathers the children about her knee for a story, whether it be a bit of her own life or a tale from a book, she does not strive after effect, but tells the story simply and naturally, just as she knows it will best suit the children. And so the story writer should tell his tale—so naturally and easily that the reader will forget that he is gazing at the printed page, and will believe himself a spectator at an actual scene in real life.

The great difficulty of the novice is to subordinate his own personality. He knows that he must in[121]dividualize his story, and that that is best done by putting something of himself into it; and he does not always understand that it is only his spirit that is wanted, and that his body will be very much in the way. Then, too, he is apt to be a little self-conscious, if not actually self-conceited, and he rather likes the idea of putting himself into his work so thoroughly that the reader must always be conscious of his presence. He likes to show his superior knowledge and to take the reader into his confidence; so he indulges in side remarks, and criticisms, and bits of moralizing, and in general exhibits an exasperating tendency to consider himself and his personal opinion of far greater importance than the story which he is expected to tell.

But above all things else the author must keep himself out of sight, and must refrain from interpolating his opinions. He is supposed to be an impersonal person, a human machine through the medium of which the story is preserved, and he has no proper place in his narrative. One no more expects or desires a speech from him than a sermon from a penny-in-the-slot phonograph which has been paid for a comic song. He may stand behind the scenes and manipulate the puppets and speak for[122] them, but his hand must be unseen, his voice carefully disguised, and his personality imperceptible; no one cares for the man who makes the Punch and Judy show—he is judged by the success of his imitation of life, and his own appearance will speedily disillusionize his public. Every time you address your public as "dear reader," "gentle reader,"—or, as Mark Twain has it, "savage reader"—you force upon that public a realization of your presence which is as disagreeable and inartistic as the appearance of the Punch and Judy man, hat in hand, seeking a few coppers in payment of the amusement he has provided.

In the short story no personal confidences, moralizing comments, or confessions are allowed. If you must express your opinions and make your personality felt, write lectures, sermons, essays, books, letters for the public press—but don't write short stories. Men read short stories to be amused, not instructed; and they will quickly revolt at any attempt on your part to introduce into your narrative a sugar-coated argument or sermon.

There are certain methods of story telling much affected by the amateur which are particularly difficult to do well. He should especially eschew[123] stories related in the first person, those told by letters, and those in the form of a diary. Notice, I do not say that these methods are absolutely bad: they have been successfully used by masters; but they are at least questionable, and they contain so many pitfalls for the unwary that it is far better for the uninitiated to let them severely alone.

Narrative in the first person gives a certain realism through the mere use of the pronoun "I," and so excites some measure of the desired personal interest; but the same result may be secured, without the accompanying disadvantages, by making the characters do a good deal of talking. That method escapes the danger of getting the narrator between the story and the reader; for the puppet who "I's" his way through the narrative is apt to be rather an important fellow, who intrudes on the most private scenes, and who prefers moralizing and philosophizing to the legitimate furthering of the plot; thus he runs no small risk of making himself unpopular with the reader, and so proving of detriment to the success of the story and of the author.

Then, too, when the author is speaking in his own proper person the reader cannot help wondering at times how one man could know so much about what[124] was going on, even if he were a veritable Paul Pry; while we have become so used to granting the omniscience and omnipresence of the invisible third person author that we never question his knowledge. If, however, the hero-narrator attempt natural modesty and profess to but slight information concerning the story, he is usually a most dull and uninteresting fellow, who is endeavoring to relate a matter of which he has missed the most essential parts. And at all times, though he be a model in all other respects, the very fact that the hero is telling the story lessens its interest, since no matter what harrowing experiences he has suffered, he has come safely through; thus the narrative lacks that anxiety for the hero's welfare which is so large a factor in the delights of fiction.

"It (first person narrative) is better adapted, no doubt, to adventure than to analysis, and better to the expression of humour than to the realization of tragedy. As far as the presentation of character is concerned, what it is usual for it to achieve ... is this: a life size, full length, generally too flattering portrait of the hero of the story—a personage who has the limelight all to himself—on whom no inconvenient shadows are ever thrown; ... and then[125] a further graceful idealization, an attractive pastel, you may call it, the lady he most frequently admired, and, of the remainder, two or three Kit-Cat portraits, a head and shoulders here, and there a stray face."[31]

Stories written in the epistolary or diary form suffer all the disadvantages of first person narrative; but they are also liable to others, equally serious, which are peculiarly their own. They are seldom natural, in the first place, for granted that people really do keep interesting diaries or write literary letters, it is rare in either case that a story would be told with technical correctness. And such narratives are usually poor in technique, for their form necessitates the introduction of much that is commonplace or irrelevant, and it also requires the passage of time and causes breaks in the thread of the plot. These forms are favorites with the inexperienced because they seem to dodge some of the difficulties that beset the way of the literary aspirant. Their form is necessarily loose and disjointed, and their style rambling and conversational, and these qualities are characteristic of the work of novices.

"But if fictitious letters are so seldom anything[126] but tiresome, is this because 'the age of letter writing is past?' ... The unpopularity of the epistolary form as a method of authorship is, in fact, due quite as much to a change of taste as to the decay of letter writing. The old practice was of a piece with the unrealities of the eighteenth century, both in art and letters. It necessitated an abundance of superfluous detail, and it was a roundabout, artificial way of doing what the true artist could do much better, simply and directly. It gave, of course, an opportunity of exhibiting subjectively many 'fine shades' of feeling. But it is certainly much more difficult to carry conviction in inventing letters for fictitious persons than in making them converse. In the latter case there is a background; there is the life and movement of the various characters, the spontaneity of question and reply, and the running interchange of talk, all helping to keep a spell upon the reader. The letter gives much less chance of illusion, and we may very soon become conscious of the author—instead of the suffered correspondent—beating his brains for something to say next."[32]

Another poor method, indicative of callowness, is making the hero, so to speak, an animal or a[127] thing, and permitting it to tell its own story. This has peculiar charm for the tyro because of its supposed originality, but it is really as old as story telling itself. It offends greatly against naturalness, for however one may believe in the story of Balaam's ass, or delight in Æsop's talking brutes or Greece's talking statues, one cannot restrain a feeling of skepticism when a dog or a coin is put forward, given human attributes, and made to view the world through man's eyes. On the other hand, if the writer attempts to read the thoughts of the brute or the thing, the difficulty at once presents itself that he can only guess at the mental processes of the one, and that the other is incapable of thought; so that in either case the result is unsatisfactory. One exception to this statement must be made: Kipling, in his "Jungle Book" stories, seems to have achieved the impossible and read for us the very thoughts of the brute creation. Unfortunately it is not given us to know how nearly he has hit their mental processes; but his animals certainly do not think with the thoughts of men and their cogitations, as he interprets them, appear to us perfectly logical and natural. Yet the success of Kipling does not at all lessen the force of my general statement,[128] for there are few writers who would care to cross pens with him here. Even our own Joel Chandler Harris, in his delightful Uncle Remus stories, has succeeded only in giving his animals human ideas and attributes. The whole endeavor to endow the rest of creation with man's intelligence is too thoroughly artificial to offer a profitable field to the short story writer.

Again, novices err frequently through introducing a multiplicity of narrators, either writing a patchwork story in which all take a hand, or placing narration within narration as in the "Arabian Nights." The method of allowing a number of persons consecutively to carry on the plot is very attractive, since it offers a way of introducing a personally interested narrator without making him preternaturally wise; and it also affords opportunity for the author to exhibit his skill in viewing events from all sides and through the minds of several very different persons. It is, however, open to most of the first person objections, and it is liable to produce a disjointed narrative; but it is particularly unhappy in the short story because it necessitates the introduction and disposition of a number of important people.

[129]The use of narration within narration is more objectionable. It is of little importance who tells the story, or how it came to be told; the less the narrator appears the better. It is seldom that more than one narrator is necessary, yet two, three, or even more are often introduced, with full descriptions of persons and circumstances. "It is a frequent device of the unpractised to cover pages with useless explanations of how they heard a tale which is thus elaborately put too far off from the reader to appeal to his sympathies. One writer, after describing a rural station, his waiting for the train, its appearance when it arrives, the companions of his journey, and so on, is wrecked, and spends the night on a log with an old farmer, who spins him a domestic yarn that has nothing to do with what went before. Why not give the tale direct, in the character of the old farmer? There is no law against that."[33]

This practice is due to the fact that amateurs usually begin by writing strictly true stories, and they always consider it of prime importance that they had the tale from grandmother, or that it actually occurred to John's wife's second cousin's great aunt;[130] forgetting, in their unconscious egotism, that the reader cares only for the narrative, and nothing for the narrator. Stories told to interested listeners by "grandma," an "old hunter," or some loquacious "stranger," usually need to be so revised that the intrusive relater will disappear, merged in the unobtrusive author. Indeed, it is policy so to revise them, for the editor usually considers the author who begins thus too amateurish for him:

"Your turn now, Captain," was the exclamation of several gentlemen who were seated around a table, telling stories, narrating adventures, playing cards and drinking each others' healths.

"What will you have, gentlemen?" inquired Captain R——, a tall, handsome man of middle age, who had been in command of a large ocean steamer many years.

"Oh, one of your adventures," said one of the party; "for surely you must have had some."

"Ah, very well, gentlemen—I remember one that will no doubt interest you; here it is:"

For at the outset he knows, and he knows that his readers will know, that the tale ends thus:

"So ends my story, gentlemen; now let us have a drink to the health of the young sailor's wife, the dearest woman in the world."

"And why not the sailor's health, too?" asked one of the gentlemen.[131]

"All right, sir, just as you please, gentlemen, for I was that sailor."

and that the intervening story is apt to be every whit as stale and conventional as its beginning and its end. Irving's "Tales of a Traveller" show how this method may be used successfully; yet it required all of Irving's art to make the extra-narrative passages readable, and it is an open question if the stories would not have been improved by isolation.

The best method of narration, the simplest and most natural, is to tell the story in the third person, as if you were a passive observer; to make the characters active and conversational; and to permit nothing, not even your own personality, to get between the reader and the story.


[31] "The Short Story," by Frederick Wedmore. Nineteenth Century. Mar., '98.

[32] "The Epistolary Form." Literature. Apr. 7, '99.

[33] "Magazine Fiction and How Not to Write It," by Frederick M. Bird. Lippincott's. Nov., '94.

Excerpted From Short Story Writing, by Charles Raymond Barrett

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