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A primer on short narratives. This applies to short pieces of fiction and creative nonfiction. Origins of Narrative/Story?.

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a primer on short narratives

A primer onshort narratives

This applies to short pieces of fiction and creative nonfiction

origins of narrative story
Origins of Narrative/Story?

“The best thing to do about the modern short story’s ‘origins’ is just forget them: they’re in Chekhov and Joyce and James and in things like the Imagist movement in poetry and Pound’s and Eliot’s approaches to criticism. Independent of any ‘traditions’ or ‘influences’ or ‘origins,’ the short story became immediately as complex, intricate, and difficult as any other contemporary form, more so. At any rate, it has no connection with cavemen or ‘simple utterance.’”

~ Rust Hills, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular

Storytelling is a universal human need.

short stories short memoirs
Short Stories & Short Memoirs
  • Elements of narrative writing (character, setting, plot, conflict, theme)
  • Dramatized in scenes
  • Reveals a character undergoing change
  • Conflicts, obstacles, set-backs
  • Results in meaning
  • Drawn from imagination/fiction
  • Elements of narrative writing (character, setting, plot, conflict, theme)
  • Dramatized in scenes
  • Reveals a character undergoing change
  • Conflicts, obstacles, set-backs
  • Results in meaning
  • Drawn from personal experience

For convenience, we’ll focus on the short story, noting any differences between the two forms.

characteristics of a short story
Characteristics of a Short Story
  • Brief – (1,500-7,500 words) / Flash fiction (100-800 words)
  • Tightly focused – 1 major event / conflict
  • Limited number of characters – (1 or 2 main characters)
  • Creates a single, specific effect
  • More compressed than a novel (or memoir) – no subplots
  • Read in a single sitting – (30 mins. – 2 hrs.)
  • Creates “a vivid and continuous fictional* dream” ~ John Gardner

*Short memoirs create a vivid and continuous dreamof a more literal nature.

purpose of a short story
Purpose of a Short Story
  • To show a character undergoing GHANGE
    • Comments on universal experiences
    • Gives insights / teaches us how to live
    • Focuses on a single illustration of the human condition
    • Shows SUBJECTIVE* experience of the individual, but in it we see the universal
    • Literature is not objective, not journalism*
    • Always expressed from a very particular point of view (“That’s just how some folks would do.” ~ F. O’Connor

* This applies to short memoirs as well. Not writing fact-based articles or news features. Short memoirs tell a story in the same way that short fiction tells a story.

elements of narrative writing
Elements of Narrative Writing

1- Character

2- Setting

3- Plot/Conflict

4- POV

5- Theme

For many, storytelling comes naturally and we intuitively know what is fundamental to a story.

what is a short story
What is a Short Story?

“A story is a complete dramatic action – and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is meaning that derives from the whole presented experience.” ~ Flannery O’Connor

But the most important aspects of stories are not often considered. That’s what we’re going to look at this term.

beyond the elements
Beyond the Elements

1. Sensual Detail

2. Dramatic Action

3. Yearning

4. Conflict & Tension

5. Pity & Fear = Catharsis

6. Meaning/“Moral POV”



From whence do they come?

not ideas let s call them inklings
Not ideas: Let’s call them Inklings
  • Ideas are too closely associated with LITERAL MEMORY*. “It really happened” inhibits imagination
  • Idea suggests completeness
  • Ideas seek out resolutions, tend to be less malleable, more fixed/rigid
  • A hunch or an inkling is more closely associated with the dreaming mind
  • Inkling suggests something not fully formed; a bit, a piece, a parcel, a fragment
  • Inklings seek out associations

“Literal memory is the enemy… A work of art is an organic thing. Every detail must organically resonate with every other detail. If you have an intransigent (uncompromising) literal memory – and intransigent is what literal memories are – it sits in the middle of the organic object and destroys everything around it.”

~ Robert Olen Butler, From Where You Dream

from idea inkling to meaning
From Idea Inkling to Meaning

“An idea is no more than a spark that sets the story process into motion, even in such a literature of ideas as science fiction… The idea itself is not what makes a story distinctive. Consider the difference between a sensational tabloid headline, WOMAN SLEEPS WITH HUSBAND’S CORPSE FOR FORTY YEARS and William Faulkner’s treatment of the same idea in ‘A Rose for Emily.’

An idea is essential—but an idea is not enough. As science fiction editors, we see altogether too many so-called stories that do no more than present ideas… Unless you are writing a deliberately shallow action-adventure story, the overall plot and the development of your characters must come to MEAN something.”

~ George H. Scithers & Darrel Schweitzer, “I Have an Idea”

give us some examples teach
Give us some examples, teach

Literal Memory

Personal Experience


Curiosities – (UFOs, twins, burlesque)

Ambiguities/mysteries – (good & evil, way we’re indoctrinated by our moms, justice)

Headlines/overheard stories – pet tiger mauls baby, girl burned by fireworks

Dreams – “Monsters in Appalachia”

Songs – Better man

“Loaded” objects – snake, cage, Nazi earrings

Physical oddities – wooden leg, hair lip

Postcards/photographs – R.O. Butler

  • Indirectly – general subjects (like marriage) without including specific personal experiences/meditation on subject
  • Distortion with the mythic – the “Impossible Probable”
  • Amalgam/collage – Mixing up bits of personal with bits from other sources (not simply changing names, but distortion)
  • Moral preoccupations – beliefs, values, customs
story vs vignette

Story vs. vignette

The importance of CHANGE and MEANING

story vs vignette1
Story vs. Vignette
  • Dramatic Action/Change + Meaning
  • Freytag's Model: conflict, crisis, resolution (change + meaning)
  • Or Apocalyptic Arc (change + meaning)
  • Clear sense of YEARNING  conflict  change + meaning
  • Sense of pity & fear  empathy  catharsis  resonance
  • Accumulation of details  meaning
  • Causally related sequence of events
  • Lots of conflict, interest, drama
  • But no sense of change
  • No clear significance of events/no meaning
  • No resonance / no catharsis
  • PROBLEM: no yearning; or undefined, fuzzy yearnings
  • PROBLEM: meandering plot lines with no relevance to yearning
  • Irrelevant details that confuse rather than enlighten

“Everything you write is the same: two worlds collide; a love story.” ~ John Gardner

“A character is someone capable of change. Story is the process of that change. The change may be from alive to dead, from ugly to beautiful, from ignorant to wise, callous to compassionate, from certain to uncertain or vice versa. But the change occurs because the character confronts a situation that will challenge her/his assumptions and somehow shake up the easy beliefs—hence the prevalence, in such a formulation, of strangers, journeys, and worlds. I like the metaphor of the two worlds, too, because it suggests both the importance of setting and the necessity of discovery. The new world that the character discovers may be the house next door; it may be a different set of assumptions or the next stage of life (puberty is a foreign country, marriage is an undiscovered planet)—but the story will always end in an altered state in at least the character whose POV we share. Usually the story will result in greater wisdom, compassion, or understanding—though it can end in diminishment or narrowing. As readers, however, we will always, if the story succeeds, have our capacity for empathy enlarged by having lived in the character’s skin for the duration. Every story, in this way, is a love story.”

~ Janet Burroway, The Elements of Fiction

story starter exercise
Story Starter Exercise

Part One: Come up with a character who yearns for something. Do not move on to the next phase until you have a clear idea of what your character yearns for.

a. Freedom b. Justice c. Revenge d. Forgiveness

Part Two: Select one of the scenarios below.

1. A character finds something. What is it? From what new world does it come?

2. A character begins a new position of some kind or changes roles in some way. What stranger does he meet there?

Part Three: Write a paragraph sketching out the setting, describing the objects, and setting the scene. If you can, begin to imagine what obstacles stand in the way of your character’s yearning.