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: The Style by Charles Raymond Barrett


The method of presentation of the short story is a matter of import. Its very artificiality calls for skilled workmanship; it must be made pleasant and readable by all known devices; its brevity, too, permits and demands a higher finish than is necessary in the novel. And altogether the short story offers a writer who is not exactly a genius a rare chance to show his ability as an artist in words. Hence the question of style is of serious moment.

Style is so much a matter of individuality, and the short story comprises so broad a range of subjects, that it is not easy to lay down general rules concerning the proper style. No two masters would or could treat the same plot in precisely the same way, and yet the method of each would be correct. However, certain generalizations concerning the style of the short story may be made without being arbitrary. As always in literature, the style should be appropriate to the matter. This may seem entirely gra[190]tuitous, yet the examination of the work of amateurs will justify the remark. They are apt to treat serious subjects with the most unbecoming levity, and to dress commonplaces in an absurdly ornate style; and at times they so far disregard propriety that they offend against good taste.

The style of the short story should be simple, easy and concise. Usually the matter is not of great moment; it is incidental rather than critical; and it offers little reason for exaggerated expressions, or rotund periods. Above all it should be natural, for the short story, despite its many conventionalities, is very near to nature. The extreme sensationalism affected by many amateurs is most absurd, for nature and things true to nature can never be really sensational—a fact which is unconsciously recognized by the offending writer in his resort to artificial means to make his narrative sensational. I say "extreme sensationalism" because I believe a certain amount of what is commonly designated sensationalism is permissible in the short story to sustain the interest, and to produce that delightful "thrill" which accompanies a clever scene. The best rule for the novice is to stick close to nature—that is, to fact. He may present what startling ef[191]fects he will so that he can prove them copies of nature, and so that they do not offend against art; but it is not permitted him to harrow the feelings of his readers by unduly dwelling upon exciting topics. Any undue exaggeration of this style, or any attempt to create excitement by sheer force of italics, capitals and exclamation points, is in extremely bad taste. It at once disgusts the intelligent reader, and it will soon so weary even the ignorant that he will yawn drearily over the most startling display of "scare" lines.

The necessity for a simple style must not be made an excuse for commonplaceness; and here the author confronts rather a serious question, for everyday life abounds in commonplaces, which literature will not tolerate. If we make our stories readable we must, in some degree, represent life; if we represent life we cannot wholly avoid commonplaces; if we do not avoid commonplaces we become unliterary. However, the difficulty is more easily solved than at first appears, and the solution lies in the very life which we portray. Life certainly is full of the baldest facts, but they are so subordinated to the relatively few but important events by which our lives are checkered that we shortly forget the[192] commonplaces and remember only the striking occurrences. In like manner we should so preserve the proportion of our stories that the necessary commonplaces, while they properly perform their parts, shall be carefully subjugated to the interesting happenings. This is largely a matter of the handling, for in fiction events seem great or small in accordance with the space and treatment that they receive. The way, then, to dispose of commonplaces is to slight them as much as possible: to crowd them into the least possible space, and to couch them in ordinary language; for thoughts that are rendered unusual by their expression become conspicuous.

By ordinary language I do not mean the stereotyped phrases which the mentally lazy employ in the expression of their thoughts, but the simple, correct and rather colorless speech which is heard among the truly cultured. Indeed, sensationalism is preferable to the deadly monotony of the writer who is wont to clothe his ideas in the ready-made garments of conventional phrases; for sensationalism has at least the merit of vividness. The writer who penned the following could hardly have been more absurdly commonplace and stereotyped in his phraseology if he had been ridiculing some "popular" au[193]thor of cheap literature, but he wrote in serious earnest; the story throughout is a perfect gold mine of such hackneyed expressions. I have italicized the most offensive, though it is hardly necessary.

Faint rumors of a church scandal permeated the very atmosphere in Frankton, and every one was on the alert to catch the faintest whisper in regard to the matter; as the minister was a social favorite, and it was known by an inside few that he was the one most seriously involved.

For a long time the matter was suppressed, and then first one hint after another leaked out that Mrs. Daniels, the minister's wife, was a most unhappy woman, and that there was another woman in the case.

At first the members of the congregation hooted at the idea; but when item after item of scandal came to their notice they begun to take a little notice, and it was noticeable that a good many enquiries were going the rounds, "just to satisfy themselves as to the ridiculous part of it", so the curiosity seekers explained.

Other writers attempt to make their commonplaces literary by couching them in stilted language, and then we have what is technically termed "fine writing." It is to this tendency that we owe such phrases as, "After the customary salutations he sought the arms of Morpheus," and "Upon rising in the morning he partook of an abundant repast,"[194] when the author meant merely to say, "After saying good night he went to bed," and "He breakfasted." This error is due to the mistaken idea that things which are common are necessarily vulgar, and to an absurd squeamish objection to "call a spade, a spade." It is the worst possible way to handle commonplaces, for it attracts particular attention to the very things which it is supposed to hide.

But the writer may purposely subordinate commonplace facts, and yet suffer from a commonplace style, if he fails to give his narrative character. It is then that the young writer resorts to the use of poetry, quoted and original, with which he interlards his stories and the speeches of his characters. The poetry may be good, even if it is original, and it may be very apt, but few people in real life quote poetry in their ordinary speech. You may be well read in poetry and the kindred arts, but it is hardly the part of modesty or discretion for you to force your quotations upon a reader who very likely cares neither for your erudition nor the poets themselves. It is bad technically, too; and usually, as in the case of the following specimen, shows that the author has a wider acquaintance with the poets than with the rhetoricians.

[195]Algernon Long was not a person of unbalanced mind, nor was he superstitious in his interpretations of signs, visions and dreams to which so many attach supernatural importance; he was simply a successful man of the world, full of life and buoyancy, devoted to his occupation, that of a stock-broker, and to his domestic and social relations. And yet he believed with Lord Byron, that

"Our life is twofold; sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wild reality,
And dreams that in their development have breath,
And tears and tortures and the touch of joy;
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight from off our waking toils.
They do divide our being,
They speak like sibyls of the future."

A number of his most cherished friends had recently passed away into that "undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveller returns." The loss to him was intolerable; the experience the most painful he had ever known. Each case seemed more cruel than its predecessor; to himself personally most suggestive. He was now in mature manhood, and could thoroughly appreciate the poet's lines:

"Life is real, life is earnest,
And the grave is not its goal."

So strong is the tendency of the short story toward simplicity that even figures of speech are to be avoided. This does not mean that we are care[196]fully to discard any expression which savors of the figurative: such a thing would be absurd, for literature and everyday speech abound in figurative language which passes current unquestioned. But figures which are introduced simply for literary effect are unnatural, and so are to be avoided. They are really digressions, excrescences—beautiful enough in themselves, perhaps, but assuredly adding no beauty to the narrative. Principal among such figures employed by amateurs are the long complex metaphors and similes in which epic poetry delights; the figure of apostrophe, too, is much affected by tyros, because it affords them opportunity to coin orotund phrases concerning the irony of fate, the haplessness of true lovers, and kindred favorite topics.

Foreign words and phrases form another sad stumbling block in the way of a simple natural style. They have their uses, of course—and one is to betray the novice. He fondly imagines that a sprinkling of French phrases gives his narrative a delightful air of cosmopolitanism; and that as an evidence of "culture" a line from Horace or Homer is equal to a college degree. So he thumbs the back of his dictionary, culls therefrom trite quotations with[197] which to deck his writing, and never uses an English word when he knows a similar French one. The employment of a foreign word or phrase to express an idea which can be equally well couched in English is the cheapest sort of a literary trick, and it is the unmistakable badge of hopeless mediocrity and self-complacency. Expressions from other languages may be judiciously and legitimately used to give local color, and they are, of course, indispensable in the speeches of certain character types; but as a rule there is no better medium for your thoughts than good wholesome English.

You will notice that I specify the sort of English you should use, for many who avoid foreign idioms fall into the equally bad habit of using poor and incorrect English. I am not referring to the speeches of the characters, whose privileges in this respect I have already discussed; but in the necessary introductory and connective phrases you should take exquisite pains to keep your English pure. The use of slang is of course absolutely inexcusable, for it offends against good taste as well as good rhetoric; but the employment of words in a careless or perverted meaning is equally condemnable. It is also a mistake to use too many adjectives, to throw[198] every adjective and adverb into the superlative degree, and in other ways to exaggerate every expression which you use. Much of this misuse of words is due to ignorance, but more to carelessness or laziness; in any case you can detect your faults if you seek for them, and you should take immediate steps to correct them, with the help of a dictionary, or a rhetoric, or both.

The style of the short story should be easy and flowing, so that it shall be pleasant reading. Good ideas may be expressed in good language and still be afflicted with a nervousness or stiffness of style that will make the work difficult of perusal, and so lessen its power to hold the reader. One of the first requisites for this desired ease is a lightness of phrasing which is at once a matter of thought and of rhetorical construction. Try to avoid heaviness and austerity of thought as much as you would similar qualities in writing. Get at the lighter, brighter, perhaps more frivolous side of things; do not take your work too seriously, you are seldom writing tragedies; permit yourself to be humorous, witty, a little ironical; do not plunge too deeply into dark abysses of metaphysics or theology. I do not mean that you should not treat of serious things, or that[199] you should make light of serious subjects; but there are several ways of looking at any matter, and the atmosphere of intense and morbid gloom which Poe casts over so many of his weird tales is not characteristic of the short story in general. At the same time I am far from advocating flippancy or superficiality, for both are deadly sins in literature. I merely wish to impress upon you the absurdity of the solemn tone which some amateurs seem to think a mark of depth of thought or feeling. An apt, simple phrase is the most forceful means of expression known to literature.

Your bright thoughts should be expressed in words and sentences which are in themselves light and easy. There is a good deal of difference between words which may mean the same thing, and it is not altogether a matter of length. Words which are heavy and lumbering, or harsh, or suggestive of unpleasant thoughts, should be used with care, for their thoughtless introduction will often injure the ease of a passage. Tone color in words is of almost as much importance in prose as in verse.

Similarly the sentence structure should be carefully tested for ease. The periodic style should be practically tabooed: it is seldom appropriate to the[200] matter of the short story, and it is always heavy and retarding. The very short sentence, which is so typical of the French, may be used only in moderation, for its excessive employment gives a nervous jerky style which is tiresome and irritating. Among American writers Stephen Crane is an awful example of this "bumpety-bump" method of expression, though his later works show a tendency to greater ease. The exclamatory and interrogative sentences, of which amateurs use so many, under the mistaken impression that they lend vivacity and vividness, should be totally eschewed. They offend against almost every principle of the short story, and they have nothing to recommend them. Usually they are irrelevant and inartistic asides by the author. The proper sentence structure for the bulk of the short story is the simple straightforward declarative sentence, rather loose, of medium length, tending to short at times to avoid monotony and give vividness.

Exclamation points must be used sparingly: a row of three or four of them at the end of a sentence is a sign of amateurism. The mere presence of a point of punctuation will not make a thrilling sentence or produce a climax. Punctuation marks[201] are designed to draw attention to what already exists, and they have no inherent power to create interest. Very few sentences really need or merit a mark of exclamation; and if they are properly constructed the reader will feel the exclamatory force, whether the point is expressed or not. Italics, as a method of emphasis, are seldom necessary in a well-written story. They, too, are signs of what has already been expressed, and not the expression of a new force. A word or a phrase which needs sufficient emphasis to excuse italics should be so placed that the reader will involuntarily give it the proper stress; and an expression thus brought into notice far exceeds in importance one which owes its prominence to a mere change in type. Words in still more staring type—small capitals or capitals—are entirely out of place.

Finally, the style of the short story should be concise. "One of the difficulties of the short story, the short story shares with the actual drama, and that is the indispensableness of compression—the need that every sentence shall tell."[44] It is not sufficient that all irrelevant ideas be carefully pruned away;[202] all unnecessary fullness of expression must likewise be cut, that the phrasing of the story may always be crisp and to the point. This is sometimes a matter of the expunging of a superfluous word or phrase; but it is fully as often a recasting of a sentence so as to avoid redundancy. The object of this conciseness is twofold: to waste as little as possible of the valuable and abridged space of the short story, and to make the movement of the language as quick as the action of the plot.

The fault to be avoided here is commonly called "padding." Briefly speaking the term padding, as applied to a piece of literature, denotes the presence of irrelevant matter. It may consist of the introduction of scenes, persons, episodes, conversations or general observations which have no part in advancing the action; or, more dangerous still, it may consist of the presence of occasional words and phrases which lengthen and perhaps round out the sentences without adding to their value. Irrelevant scenes, persons, episodes, conversations and general observations have already been discussed at length, and need no further treatment here. But I must warn the novice against that most insidious form of padding which is responsible for so many[203] long and dreary sentences, cluttered with repetitious words and phrases which retard the narrative and exasperate the reader. This redundancy is a rhetorical fault, which is best corrected by a return to the old school day methods of testing a sentence for coherence. It must be corrected, and that vigorously and radically, for it is fatal to a good short story style. An instance of how much stress editors lay upon procuring only the "concentrated extract of the story-teller's art" may be found in a letter received by a young writer from the editor of a prominent publication: "We will pay $100 for your story as it is. If you can reduce it a third, we will pay you $150; if a half, $200."

Concise must not be understood to mean exhaustive, for it is bad policy to leave nothing to the imagination of the reader. The average person is fond of reading between the lines, and usually prides himself upon his ability in this respect; accordingly he is easily exasperated with the exhaustive style which leaves no chance for the exercise of his subtle power, while he takes huge delight in expanding the sly hints which the knowing writer throws out for his benefit. Such a reader never stops to consider that he has fallen into a skillfully[204] laid trap; he compliments the author upon his artistic method and turns from the story well pleased with himself and with the writer. There is, however, something more than a pampering of pride in the charm of this suggestive method: it enables the writer to cast a light veil of uncertainty over rather bald facts, and thus to maintain that romantic glamour of unreality which plays so important a part in fiction.

A good style can be acquired by the exercise of knowledge, patience and labor. The first requisite is a practical working knowledge of rhetoric and English composition. It seems absurd to suppose that any one would attempt to write stories without being able to write correct English, but at least two-thirds of the stories submitted to editors contain inexcusable grammatical and rhetorical errors; and many of the faults which I have found it necessary to discuss in the first part of this chapter are matters of rhetoric. If you cannot write correct English now, set about perfecting yourself in that respect before you dare to essay story telling. There are books and correspondence courses galore which will assist you. If you won't do that you had better turn your energies in some other direction, for you[205] have neither the courage nor the spirit necessary for a successful short story writer.

Your next duty is to cultivate your individuality. "Style is the personal impress which a writer inevitably sets upon his production. It is that character in what is written which results from the fact that these thoughts and emotions have been those of the author rather than of any other human being. It is the expression of one man's individuality, as sure and as unique as the sound of his voice, the look from his eye, or the imprint of his thumb."[45] Every person who has any call to write has a strong personality—an original manner of looking at life and of treating its problems. He wishes so to influence the world by this personality that it will consent to see through his eyes, or will at least listen patiently to what he sees. It is this ego, this that is the man himself, that he really desires to show through his writings. His first step, then, is to cultivate this individuality, to train his originality, so to speak, in order that he may see everything in a new and distinctive light. He should also give attention to the expression of his personality. It[206] is not sufficient that he shall see life at a new angle, but he must so train himself that he shall be able to put in an original way the new phases which his individuality has discovered. It is this expression of the individuality which causes so much trouble, for hundreds of stories are written which show originality in conception, but which fall into conventionality in the execution. The best way to express your personality is to be perfectly natural, and say exactly what you think; any labored striving after effects will produce an artificial style which will be fatal to success.

It is a great aid to the attainment of a good style thoroughly to understand your own mind before you put pen to paper. It may seem odd that you should be ignorant of your own ideas on a subject, but often difficulty of expression is due to indecision of mind. Vagueness or confusion of ideas in a writer's mind is always the precursor of a poor style. Too often, struck by a happy thought, he attempts to put it on paper before it has yet sufficient definiteness of form to justify expression, and when he would project it into writing he loses the thought in a mass of the very words in which he seeks to voice it. Again, the writer's mind may contain sev[207]eral jumbled ideas, each one good in itself but totally independent of the others; and if he attempts to express any particular one before it has had time to disentangle itself, it is bound to bring with it portions of other and distinct ideas. Clear thinking is the basis of clear writing; and clear writing prevents the chief errors that threaten your style.

Study the stories of great writers; you know what parts most trouble you—compare your work with that of others and see how they have obtained the effect that you desire to produce. It is not wise to limit your study to any one writer. Your style should possess a certain flexibility, to enable it to adapt itself readily to your varying themes, and you should master the methods of all good writers; if you have sufficient individuality to have any excuse for writing you need have little fear of imitating them too closely. For style alone it is better to confine yourself to the more modern writers. There is always a change in style, if not exactly a progression, from one literary generation to the next, and you should aim at conformity to the canons of your own age. Those early masters of the short story, Irving, Hawthorne and Poe, had a tendency toward a diffuse, almost discursive style, which is[208] not much in vogue now. Their ease and elegance are most commendable, but they lost somewhat more in force and conciseness than is thought correct to-day.


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

[45] "Talks on Writing English," by Arlo Bates. Chapter on "Style."

Excerpted From Short Story Writing, by Charles Raymond Barrett

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