Cutting the new book

I’m working on a new book of short stories with the working title of The Last Present, which I will publish before the end of the year.

The target length of the book is 80,000 words. I set this target because I will also release it as an audiobook and I want it to be 8 hours or longer.

Last month I had over 65,000 words drafted, but now I have only 60,000. As I’ve been writing the stories, the themes and voice of the book are coming clear. This is good. I want a book with a coherent voice. However, now that I see what the book is, I can also see what it isn’t, and some of the stories don’t belong in the book, even some that I otherwise like. I cut them out, and now I’m back to 60,000 words. I have 20,000 words left to go, assuming everything I write fits, which it probably won’t.

I don’t like to cut because it means I’m not as near to done as I thought I was. But I also do like to cut because what’s left is truer to the emerging vision of the book. Over the years I’ve found that the more I write, the more I enjoy cutting. Addition sometimes makes the final result better. Subtraction almost always does.

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Musicality (The Art of the Very Short Story)

This post is part of a series that explores very short stories – stories as short as a single breath. In just that small a space it is possible to capture moments with clarity, mystery, and emotional punch.

The series is to expose new readers to very short stories and demonstrate writing techniques that are useful for very short stories and many other kinds of writing.

Other posts in this series:

Introduction

Start in the Middle

Use Familiar Contexts

Small Choices Make a Big Difference

Don’t Be Afraid of the Ordinary

Go for Emotion

Metaphor

Appeal to the Senses

The Implied Character

Surprise

Misunderstanding

 

Let me begin by speaking plainly.  I think very short stories are as much a form of poetry as they are a form of fiction.  Why poetry?  Because a very short story uses all the tools in the language to fill a small space with meaning.  So does a poem.

If you allow that poetry and very short stories have a similar job to do, then it’s only proper that a very short story writer should borrow techniques from poets.  One of these is to consider words as sounds and poems as musical compositions.  A poem’s sounds can matter as much as its meaning, and the same is true for a very short story.

Let’s listen to a few stories.

Every sentence has a rhythm, which a writer creates using word choice and word order.  Take the story below.

He could not shake the grain of sand from under the crystal of his watch.

The sentence has two phrases, the one ending in “sand” and the one ending in “watch”.  Notice how they have a similar rhythm.  “Shake” and “sand” are accented words and so are “crystal” and “watch”.  The symmetry of the two phrases makes the entire sentence flow.

The sentence could have been written differently.

He could not shake the grain of sand from under his watch crystal.

Notice how this small change breaks the flow.  Now the accent is on the word “watch”, and the word “crystal” dangles by itself.  It sounds awkward compared to the first version.

Here is another example of word order and rhythm.

He started taking off his clothes as soon as he heard the river.

The same story could have been written like this.

He started taking his clothes off as soon as he heard the river.

The sentences have the same meaning but the first version has no strong accents in the middle, and so it flows without interruption from beginning to end.  The rhythm of the story matches the hero’s steady motion toward the river.

In the second version, the sentence is arranged to put a strong accent on the word “off”, which breaks the flow of the sentence and interferes with the sense that the river is pulling the hero toward it.

Rhythm isn’t only about the accents.  It’s also about the pauses between them.  Consider the following story.

The wedding photographer snapped a picture of me.  I don’t know why.  I was just a guy at a wedding.

The sentence “I don’t know why.” serves two purposes.  The first is for the story.  It reveals the character of the hero being photographed and lets us identify with him.  The second purpose is to create a pause after the picture is snapped.  The sentence takes time to read, especially the lengthy vowel sound in “why”.  This creates a moment in time between the photographer and the hero.

Let’s look at another technique.

The storm knocked down all her windchimes.

Can you hear what stands out?  It’s the word “windchimes”, specifically the vowel sound in “chimes”.  All the words leading up to it have similar vowel sounds, and windchimes is alone in having a distinct sound.  Just as all the wind is massed against the chimes, so too all the sound of the other words is massed against that one word.  Consider this a moment: the sounds in the story are used to create a metaphor.  Not just the words – the sounds of words.

The use of contrasting vowels can be thought of as analogous to harmony in music.

Here’s a story that uses both rhythm and vowel harmony.

“Mama, get me tabla.  Get me tabla, mama!  I really, really want tabla, please?”

Almost all the words use one of two vowel sounds, that of “mama” and that of “me”.  The story is written to sound like playing tabla with alternating low notes and high notes.  The most distinct word in the story is “please”, which stands out because it is at the end of the sentence and because it’s wrapped in the percussive “p” sound.  It is supposed to sound like the high ringing “na” syllable of the tabla.  Also notice also how “please” is not in its own sentence.  (“I really want tabla.  Please?”)  It’s is kept in the same sentence to make it a part of a single spoken musical phrase.

The next story also use vowel harmony, but with a twist.

He read the note again.  “Dog pop?  What’s dog pop?”

Do you hear the harmony?  It’s between “pop”, which is in the text of the story, and “poop”, which is not.  The story creates a surprise, and harmony, by leading us to expect one sound and delivering a different sound.

We’ve looked at rhythm and harmony.  Now let’s look at melody.

He ran away down the beach.  “Sand dollar, sand quarter, sand dime, sand nickel…sand penny!”

The first sentence sets the scene and puts the boy in motion.  The second sentence rises up a musical scale of coins and climaxes with the “p” in penny.

Here’s another.

“I want to be buried in a golden coffin lowered into the grave by a gold-plated crane.  Do you understand me?  I want children singing!”

The story is broken into three melodic phrases: middle (“I want to be buried…”), low (“Do you hear me?”),and  high (…children singing!).  Like “sand dollar” it rises to a crescendo.  The story could have been written with the same phrases rearranged.  Listen to how different this version sounds.

“I want to be buried in a golden coffin lowered into the grave by a gold-plated crane.  I want children singing!  Do you understand me?”

Now the melody doesn’t leap off the end of the story.  It pulls down instead of up.  Which is better?  It depends on what effect the writer wants to create.

Here’s one more on melody.

“I love it that you have a sentimental heart.” she said.

“…Yeah?”

“Yeah, I like to laugh.”

Here there isn’t just one voice making the melody.  There are two.  Notice how the third sentence picks up the second (“Yeah”) and elaborates on it.  The same story could have been written with a different melody like this.

“I love it that you have a sentimental heart.” she said.  “It makes me laugh.”

I’ll leave you with a final story.  Can you hear now how musical elements are used?

“Listen,” he said.  “I don’t play notes.  I play sounds.”

* * *

This is the last post in this series. Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed The Art of the Very Short Story and would like easy access to its stories and ideas, you can get them in book form here. Happy writing!

The Art of the Very Short Story

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Misunderstanding (The Art of the Very Short Story)

This post is part of a series that explores very short stories – stories as short as a single breath. In just that small a space it is possible to capture moments with clarity, mystery, and emotional punch.

The series is to expose new readers to very short stories and demonstrate writing techniques that are useful for very short stories and many other kinds of writing.

Other posts in this series:

Introduction

Start in the Middle

Use Familiar Contexts

Small Choices Make a Big Difference

Don’t Be Afraid of the Ordinary

Go for Emotion

Metaphor

Appeal to the Senses

The Implied Character

Surprise

Musicality

 

Most stories are built around some kind of struggle.  A character wants something (the money, the girl, the promotion) and has to battle against circumstances or other characters to get it.  The purpose of the story is to establish the struggle, and show us the battle and its resolution.

In this kind of story, the goal is clear and the obstacles are directly opposed to what the hero wants.  Only one lover can have the girl.  The ship has a hole below the waterline and the crew must somehow reach dry land by evading enemy ships.  And so on and so on.

This is an excellent way to create a struggle.  There is, however, another way.  A character can not know what he wants, or want something without knowing how to get it.  Or a second character can want something different without the first character realizing it.  There is a struggle, but now part of the struggle is to understand what the struggle is, and there can be mistakes and mishaps along the way.  That is, the characters misunderstand each other or their circumstances, and act badly out of the misunderstanding.

If we want to see examples of misunderstanding, it helps to look at the places where people often misunderstand each other.

One place to look is in the divide between different cultures, as in the story below.

The first time Steve visited Mexico, his knowledge of Mexicans did not help him.

Steve thinks he knows the answers and he finds out that his answers are incomplete or wrong, probably to his embarrassment.  How did Steve figure out his knowledge didn’t help him?  Yeah.  It was almost certainly embarrassing.

They did for Sushma what they did for everyone who joined their team. They took her out to Lucky’s for the best cheeseburgers in town.

In the previous story, the heroes (“they”) don’t go to the foreign culture.  The foreign culture comes to them (“Sushma”).   Since the heroes are on their own ground, surely they must know the right thing to do, right?  Maybe not.  Sushma is Indian, and most Indians don’t eat cheeseburgers, no matter how good they are, and no matter how welcoming the team’s intentions are.

In this next story the hero sees he has a misunderstanding and tries to correct it.  The author lets us decide whether the hero discovered his ignorance before or after making a mistake with Anil.

“Hey, tell me something.  Anil is a man’s name, right?”

“Yes, it is.”

“Okay then.  That’s good to know.”

Sometimes misunderstandings aren’t cultural.  They’re between people of different generations, who often want different things.

He put his mother’s diary in a storage box for the day when he would feel he wanted to read it.

Presumably the mother is dead, or the son wouldn’t have the diary in a storage box.  Would the mother want her son to read her diary?  There is no way to know.  Maybe she would want him to read it so that he would understand her better.  (Finally understand her better?) All we know for sure is that, at least for now, the son would rather be ignorant than understand his mother too well.

“Oh no, dear, I’m not going to look at those old letters again.  You go ahead if you want to.”

The story above looks at the same theme from the other side.  The younger one wants to learn about the past, but the elder wants to forget it.  Or does she?  Does “if you want to” mean she just needs a little persuading?   Will the younger one make an effort to understand how the elder feels?

“It’s terrible when you get to that age of having sick parents, man.  That’s really hard. Well, you probably know that, huh?”

The previous story shows a younger man who thinks he is quite aware of the elder’s concerns.  But presuming to understand another person’s situation is not the same thing as understanding it from your own experience.  What the elder is thinking, and what the junior thinks the elder is thinking may not be the same thing.

Of course, one of the best places to look for misunderstanding is between the sexes, as in the stories below.

“’Saggy?’” said Stephanie.  “My one word for you was going to be ‘sensitive’.  But now I’ve changed it to ‘obtuse’ and ‘stupid’.”

Let’s ignore the fact that Stephanie is cheating by picking two words, not just one.  Apparently the man didn’t know how he was supposed to make his choice.

Even though a bowling date was her idea, he turned out to be a much, much better bowler.

Do they see the purpose of the game the same way?  Maybe not.

She was always friskiest during Monday Night Football.

And does she see this game the same way he does?

Sunrise Saturday mornin.  He rolled playfully onto her. And she rolled him back the hell off.

A man doesn’t always understand that a lady needs her rest more than she needs anything – or anyone – else.

In the last story, it would have been helpful if she had explained the situation in the first place.  We would have a lot fewer misunderstandings – and sadly, a lot fewer stories – if people just talked and listened to each other.

“Before you say anything else, Steve, the bed we’re shopping for is for my mother.”

Charlie Close is the author of two volumes of very short stories, Kites & Weddings and Rough & Beautiful, available on Amazon.

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Surprise (The Art of the Very Short Story)

This post is part of a series that explores very short stories – stories as short as a single breath. In just that small a space it is possible to capture moments with clarity, mystery, and emotional punch.

The series is to expose new readers to very short stories and demonstrate writing techniques that are useful for very short stories and many other kinds of writing.

Other posts in this series:

Introduction

Start in the Middle

Use Familiar Contexts

Small Choices Make a Big Difference

Don’t Be Afraid of the Ordinary

Go for Emotion

Metaphor

Appeal to the Senses

The Implied Character

Misunderstanding

Musicality

 

As a very short story writer, you have to get and hold our attention right away; show us something that makes us think and feel.  One of the best ways to do it is through surprise.  Sneak up on us and make us smile or scratch our heads.  We may not always understand the story but we will remember it.

How can surprise be created?  Here are a few ways.

Joey ran up to the tall urinal and made Dad take the short one.

This story works by reversing the perspective from which we view the story.  When a father and young son enter a restroom, we expect the father to take control of the situation and stand in front of the tall urinal while the son follows passively to the short one.  The author surprises us by making the boy the aggressor.   How does the father react?  Does the son say anything?  Can the boy reach high enough?  By reversing the perspective, the author has created drama out of an otherwise ordinary situation.

This technique is especially useful when it involves characters of different social status, like with the father and son.  Readers will have preconceived ideas about status that the author can break.  Here’s another example.

He wondered where he could go to buy a gavel.

We expect anyone who needs a gavel to have one already.  A gavel is a symbol of authority, and people who have one don’t “wonder”.  They decide.  What could be going on here?

The next story offers a twist on authority.  The author creates a surprise by showing us an authority figure in an unexpected place.

“Chad, this drum circle has standards.  Remember that.  Okay, let’s greet the sun again!”

Sometimes we aren’t the ones who switch perspective.  It’s the character himself.

When Mr. Jones told them to switch partners, he was surprised to find Becky Jordan’s upheld hands were red and damp.

Another way to create surprise is to show a character we doesn’t normally expect to see, as in the example below.

Ron leaned on his broom out of sight of the open doors.  The last day of school was always hard for him.

Or the author can show a character doing something unexpected in a private moment.

She stuck in her front tooth and laced up her skates.  5:00 AM always came so early.

He shut the door and dimmed the lights.  He pulled the tiny roll of film out of his mouth.

Or not-so-private moment, as in the stories below.

He caught the ball on the first hop and threw it into the outfield.

Aunt Shirley poured vodka into the gravy boat and Mom put a hand on my shoulder.  “Auntie’s house, Auntie’s rules.”

Sometimes the surprise comes when we learn something unexpected about a character.

They shook hands firmly. Only one of them knew his toenails were painted with purple sparkle polish.

He never told his coworkers he used to fix photocopiers for a living.

“Lead me to the little rotters,” said the new nanny.

Another technique is to combine different images that don’t seem to go together, as in these stories.

He wanted to watch television in peace.  She wanted a puppy.

This story combines the passive act watching television with the lively energy of a puppy.  The author creates a jolt by opening the story in one way and finishing it in another.

“Stop touching me.  My grampa died in this bed.”

Ew.  Sex and death.  Who thought it was a good idea to put those things together?  And, um, was he able to win her over?  Just wondering.

He rolled his shopping cart into the parking lot in the middle of the thunderstorm.  Aluminum foil and lip balm had been on sale.

The previous story uses strange combinations in several ways.  First, the routine act of walking in a parking lot is combined with the threat of being struck by lightning.  Second, the lightning strike is combined with thoughts of buying things on sale.  Third, the things on sale have nothing to do with each other.  Okay, aluminum foil might have something to do with lightning (something bad), but how did lip balm get into the story?  Is lightning going to give the shopper chapped lips?  What’s going on here!

One of the challenges of this technique is to find images that are both natural and unexpected.  It’s easy to throw crazy images together.  It’s harder to integrate them and make them believable.  Take the story below.

She watched her soaps while she carefully painted her toenails black.  Halloween comes once a year and it was Tony’s baby after all.

Taken separately, there is nothing strange about watching a soap opera or dressing up for Halloween.  The normal images are important because they let us understand and accept the scene.  However, the dissonant combination of the images shows the character’s personality more vividly than each image would separately.  They draw us into the scene and encourage us to use our own imaginations, which is exactly what a very short story should do.

Charlie Close is the author of two volumes of very short stories, Kites & Weddings and Rough & Beautiful, available on Amazon.

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The Implied Character (The Art of the Very Short Story)

This post is part of a series that explores very short stories – stories as short as a single breath. In just that small a space it is possible to capture moments with clarity, mystery, and emotional punch.

The series is to expose new readers to very short stories and demonstrate writing techniques that are useful for very short stories and many other kinds of writing.

Other posts in this series:

Introduction

Start in the Middle

Use Familiar Contexts

Small Choices Make a Big Difference

Don’t Be Afraid of the Ordinary

Go for Emotion

Metaphor

Appeal to the Senses

Surprise

Misunderstanding

Musicality

 

One of the most useful techniques in writing very short stories is to imply the existence of a character who isn’t in the literal text of the story.  Here’s an example.

“Mom, in rock-paper-scissors, what beats SmashTron?”

We can infer that someone defeated the child using a previously-unknown element of rock-paper-scissors called SmashTron.  (In other words, Someone cheated.)  We know Someone must exist even though he or she is not shown in the story.  This Someone is an implied character.

Notice how the way the story is written forces us to think of the implied character.  If Someone didn’t exist, SmashTron would make no sense.  But the story is supposed to make sense, so Someone must exist.  The author is bending our perceptions using characters we never see!

Implied characters often go hand-in-hand with implied situations.  SmashTron is one example.  We can imagine how the game of rock-paper-scissors went even though we didn’t see it.

Here are a few more examples of implied characters.

He threw his chef’s hat in the dumpster and walked away.

The customer or co-worker who made the chef walk out is an implied character.

She didn’t cry all the way home because she did not go home.

If she is not going home she must be leaving somewhere, and wherever that somewhere is, there is probably Someone.  The Someone who made her cry is an implied character.

The lights ahead were streaked and blurry.  The radio was too loud.  He told himself again he would not be late.

The person at the other end of this drive through the rain is an implied character.

It’s even possible to write a story with only implied characters.

Three card monty should not be played with tarot cards.

If we say this last sentence is a proverb, no characters are needed.  If, however, we say it’s a story, we are allowed and obliged to imagine characters and a plot even though none of these are referred to in the sentence itself.  The context of words influences how we read them.

Often an implied character is as central to the story as the characters we can see.  Take this story, for example.

“Man, there are tons of fish on this side of the boat. Whoo, they’re jumpin!”

The story is designed to draw our attention to an implied character on the other side of the boat who, we imagine, must not be catching as many fish.  Note how the phrase “this side” does the work to imply the other character.

Or this one.

He said beer tastes colder in the cab of an 18-wheeler.

The point of view character isn’t the truck driver.  It’s the implied character listening to the truck driver.  How does he or she perceive the driver?  With admiration?  Trepidation?  Whatever the implied character thinks and does, as determined by our imagination, will drive the story forward.

He said, “It’s ‘barbed wire’, not ‘bob war’, and personally I don’t see what the problem is.”

Not only is a character implied but we know the character has a Southern accent.  (Well, how about that?)  And we can tell that the implied character probably understands the situation better than the character who’s speaking.

She decided the picture was not her and could never have been her.  She turned it face-down on the mantle.

In this story the implied character is the hero herself – that is, her own unstated idea of who she was when the picture was taken.

He imagined that each flower delivery was really from himself.  He loved everyone and wanted them to get well soon.

The above story relies on characters who invisible not only to us as readers, but also to the hero.  He can pretend the flowers are from himself because he never sees the people who sent them.

A final example elaborates on the idea of the previous story.  Who is the hero of the story and who is the nameless supporting player is only a matter a perspective.  We are all implied characters.

His boat floated under the bridge beneath people he would never see and who were going another way.

Charlie Close is the author of two volumes of very short stories, Kites & Weddings and Rough & Beautiful, available on Amazon.

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Appeal to the Senses (The Art of the Very Short Story)

This post is part of a series that explores very short stories – stories as short as a single breath. In just that small a space it is possible to capture moments with clarity, mystery, and emotional punch.

The series is to expose new readers to very short stories and demonstrate writing techniques that are useful for very short stories and many other kinds of writing.

Other posts in this series:

Introduction

Start in the Middle

Use Familiar Contexts

Small Choices Make a Big Difference

Don’t Be Afraid of the Ordinary

Go for Emotion

Metaphor

The Implied Character

Surprise

Misunderstanding

Musicality

 

Very short stories are best at showing a moment in time, capturing an event and letting us expand on it with our own imagination.  The more evocatively the author describes what is happening inside the frame of the story, the more we can imagine what has happened, or is happening, outside the frame.  So: what can a writer do to write vivid stories?

It’s simple enough.  Describe what the characters see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, and trust us to translate sensory experience into the story’s meaning.

Let’s look at some stories that rely on the senses.

The senses, especially the sense of smell, can be used to invoke a particular person or place, as in the two stories below.

Aunt Lucy buttered us each a slice of banana bread and sent us into the living room to watch wrestling.

Angela cursed herself for agreeing to drive. The car smelled like her mother’s perfume.

The senses can be used to give us a feel for a character in the story.

Mr. Gordon showed her the violin.  Stacie shook her head and pointed to the string bass.

The two chairs cast slanted shadows.  Harvey sat in one and drank his beer.

He painted a button on the last cadet and set it down.  The lamp shone above the parade ground at West Point.

Sylvia pulled off her dress shoes and wished she had different feet.

A story can use a blend of different senses, which combine into something unique, like different notes combine into harmonies.  It’s a fact: very short stories and barbershop quartets are practically the same thing.

Kevin’s sister painted his toes robin’s egg blue while he was asleep.  He awoke to the tickle of her gentle blowing.

The blue of the toes blends with the tickle of the blowing.

They sucked helium from the balloons and sang Old Man River until they fell asleep with the lights on.

High voices singing a low song combine with lights kept on at night.

Dad tied a rope to the six-pack and threw it into the deepest part of the creek.

This story combines a taught rope, the bite of warm beer, and the sound of cold rushing water.

(Admit it: you heard the barbershop harmonies and then saw the striped shirts and straw boater hats, didn’t you?  And then you imagined the author singing the tenor part of “Good Night Irene”.  Right?  See how that works: one sense perception can invoke others.)

Another way to use sensory images is to have them represent something else.  In other words, they can be used to create metaphor.

Colin played his jaw harp for her as she went by.  He loved the way she walked.

Here the sound of the jaw harp stands in for the bounce in her step.

Denise followed her sister down to the river even as the sun was going down.

Sandra pinched out the flickering candle.  “Albert, listen to me.”

The two stories above use similar changes in the senses.  Fading light is replaced by rising sound.  The light is what is safe and expected, and when it’s gone something scarier and more uncertain takes its place.

Doris brought a blanket back to the couch.  “Aren’t you cold too?” she asked him.

Doris is inviting him to get closer to her both physically and metaphorically.

Notice that the “character” stories above, starting with “Mr. Gordon”, are also using sensory metaphors to convey their meaning.  Stacie doesn’t think she’s a “violin”.  She thinks she’s a “bass”.  Whatever is on Harvey’s mind is casting slanted shadows on it.  Sylvia’s feet are tired, and so is her spirit.

A useful thing about sensory perceptions is you don’t have to describe them explicitly to invoke them.

Davey finally got the tap shoes for his birthday.  He ran across the carpet to the sliding glass door and out onto the patio.

The story is loud with unstated sounds: the thump and swish of the shoes on the carpet, the slap of the hand on the door handle, the scrape of the sliding door, and finally the klickity-klack of the tap shoes on the cement patio.  The story uncoils with a burst of energy from sounds, all of which are only implied.

They had only one pair of boxing gloves between them.

The writer does not have to describe the boxing match for us to imagine what it will feel like.  And the imagination of both “soft” hits and “hard” hits lets us guess that the characters are boxing for fun – but not all fun.

Bettina showed him how much more fun rock paper scissors can be when you play for kisses.

Here is another story that relies on us to imagine physical contact, although of a different kind.  Notice also the feel-and-sound blending of hard hands and soft lips.

Sensory descriptions can be used to create surprise.

Dad gave RJ the bright gumball and he popped it in his mouth.  “It’s a superball, son.”  RJ gagged and spat it onto the parking lot.

The above story uses an implied sense.  We know without being told that the ball bounces on the blacktop and rolls away.

Mom asked what kind of kitten he had found at the pet store.  Dad held up the Chihuahua.

The surprise depends on a sensory expectation.  A kitten is soft and cuddly.  A Chihuahua is not.

He saw the trombone case when he woke up the next morning.  What had he been thinking?

Think how a different instrument would change the sense of the story.  Our imagination of a trombone’s sound is doing part of the story’s work.

He slumped down and cried.  And then he learned that ice melts when you sit on it.

Hot tears and ice water.  Surely our hero has a lot to feel sorry for right now.

Sensory descriptions don’t always have to drive the story.  Sometimes they just add flavor.

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and kept stirring.  “The secret to gumbo is not to ask so many damn questions.”

Charlie Close is the author of two volumes of very short stories, Kites & Weddings and Rough & Beautiful, available on Amazon.

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Metaphor (The Art of the Very Short Story)

This post is part of a series that explores very short stories – stories as short as a single breath. In just that small a space it is possible to capture moments with clarity, mystery, and emotional punch.

The series is to expose new readers to very short stories and demonstrate writing techniques that are useful for very short stories and many other kinds of writing.

Other posts in this series:

Introduction

Start in the Middle

Use Familiar Contexts

Small Choices Make a Big Difference

Don’t Be Afraid of the Ordinary

Go for Emotion

Appeal to the Senses

The Implied Character

Surprise

Misunderstanding

Musicality

 

In school we learned that a metaphor was a thing used to describe a different thing.  For example, this sentence.

Johnny’s rage was a seething volcano on the verge of eruption.

Johnny’s rage isn’t literally a volcano, but the comparison is used to illustrate the heat and pent-up urge for violence he feels.  Writers use metaphors like this – hopefully not all as purple as this one – to give color to their stories.

Metaphor is also a useful technique for very short stories, even more so than in longer stories.  However, the limited space of a very short story makes it necessary to use metaphor differently from the example above.  The metaphor has to be integrated into the story itself, both making the comparison and carrying the story forward.

Sound complicated?  It’s not.  Let’s look at an example.

It was Saturday night, and Melody, Morgan, and Ophelia had more than buttered popcorn on their minds.

The phrase “buttered popcorn” serves two purposes in this story.  First, it tells us that the story is set in a movie theater, which also helps us see that the characters are probably teenagers.  In other words, popcorn does the work of telling the story.  Second, by putting buttered popcorn next to the word “minds” it suggests that their thoughts are light and fluffy.  The story does not say, “Their thoughts were as light and fluffy as buttered popcorn.”  But putting the two images close together the story implies the metaphor.  We can see the comparison, using a minimum of space, without having the author thrust it on us.

Let’s look at some others.

He ordered the hash browns.  Brenda smiled and set a full sugar shaker on his table.

The metaphor in this story is between Brenda’s smile and the sugar shaker.  She is doing her job as a waitress (story) and she is conveying her sprit to her customer (metaphor).  Notice also how the phrase “his table” reinforces the intimacy of the sugar shaker metaphor.  Another writer might have neutralized it by writing “the table”.

She decided not to set the plastic bar between her groceries and his.

A metaphor can be created by putting something in the story, like the sugar shaker, and it can also be created by leaving something out.  The heroine of this story withholds the restraint on her groceries (story) and her feelings (metaphor).

The mailbox banged shut and Daphne felt a pang.  Soon Aiden would know everything.

The word “pang” is deliberately ambiguous.  Does it refer to Daphne’s emotions or to something more physical?  The mailbox is a clue.  If we see the mailbox and the envelope inside as a metaphor, we can guess what the letter says.  The pang is in her body, not just her mind.

Lucy went down to the shore and walked among the driftwood.  His letter had been short but plain of meaning.

The metaphor is between Lucy and the driftwood.  We can guess how Lucy feels from the cast-off wood around her.  Note also how bleached driftwood reflects the plain white letter.  Lucy has tried to escape from the letter but it is still with her in spirit.

Joshua crossed eight frozen blocks to Beth’s apartment for a steaming bowl of spaghetti and an hour of her company.

Hopefully the metaphor is easy to see now.  Beth’s company is like a warm bowl of spaghetti on a winter’s day.

He named his IV stand Julio.  He introduced himself as Robert and asked his new friend if he wasn’t a little too thin.

The metaphor is between the hero and the IV stand, his new “friend” Julio.  What makes this story different is not that we can see the metaphor: the hero has a wasting illness.  It’s that the hero has invented the metaphor for himself to embody his own condition.

Also notice the ambiguity of the word “he” in the phrase “if he wasn’t”.  Does it refer to Julio or to Robert?

The accordion weighed more than he thought it would.

This one is a little trickier than the others.  The story uses two metaphors, both of which refer to things not literally in the text.

The first is the accordion.  In most places where English is spoken the accordion is considered a quaint instrument: foreign, old fashioned, and a little silly.  People like to make fun of it and the um-pa music it’s used to play.  (You thought of lederhosen and beer steins – admit it.)  Presumably the hero (“he”) does not take accordion music any more seriously than most of us.  The accordion is a metaphor because it symbolizes someone in the hero’s life, maybe a father, grandfather, or uncle, whom he has not taken seriously.

How can we make such a leap without any other facts in the story?  It is a leap, I’ll admit, and another reader might fairly come to a different conclusion.  But consider the following.  It is not the hero’s accordion, or else he would know how much it weighs.  It must belong to someone.  Who would it belong to if not someone he knows?  And what kind of person would own an accordion?  Surely someone older and less sophisticated than the hero.

If we accept the accordion metaphor, the next metaphor is easier to see.  It’s the word “weighed”.  Now that the accordion represents a person the hero thinks as silly, the weight of the accordion represents the hero’s feelings for the accordion’s owner.  Something has happened to make the hero reevaluate the owner and give him (not to say, accord him) more respect .  Maybe the owner has died.  That would explain why the hero has encountered the accordion at this time.  He has come to learn that the accordion is physically more substantial than he realized, and we see through the metaphor that the hero also realizes the owner was substantial as a person.

I hope I have made the case that metaphor is a valuable tool in writing very short stories.  If it seems a little abstract from the above examples, hang in there.  Reading and writing metaphors becomes more natural with practice.

I would leave writers with one last word of caution.  It’s great fun to invent metaphors.  How clever can you be?  How far can a metaphor be stretched and still be understood?  But please take note: the metaphor is never the point of the story.  It is only a tool to convey the story.  The stories above aren’t about a sugar shaker, driftwood, or an IV stand.  They are about the characters and their ups and downs.  Use metaphor to keep our attention on them, never to distract us from them.

Charlie Close is the author of two volumes of very short stories, Kites & Weddings and Rough & Beautiful, available on Amazon.

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Go for Emotion (The Art of the Very Short Story)

This post is part of a series that explores very short stories – stories as short as a single breath. In just that small a space it is possible to capture moments with clarity, mystery, and emotional punch.

The series is to expose new readers to very short stories and demonstrate writing techniques that are useful for very short stories and many other kinds of writing.

Other posts in this series:

Introduction

Start in the Middle

Use Familiar Contexts

Small Choices Make a Big Difference

Don’t Be Afraid of the Ordinary

Metaphor

Appeal to the Senses

The Implied Character

Surprise

Misunderstanding

Musicality

 

A very short story is best at showing us a moment in time and letting us fill in the rest.  One of the reasons it works is because, even though there isn’t much room to tell what happened, there is enough room to show how the characters feel.  A good very short story can give an emotional charge like a photograph.  Emotion isn’t just a good thing for a story to have – as in, the whole point of writing it in the first place – it’s a useful technique for getting a big impact into a little space.

Let’s look at some stories that show characters at the moment of emotion.

No matter how long Sarah stared at the mirror, she could not tell how big her nose looked to Tommy.

One of the best ways to convey emotion is to make your characters want something.  It’s human nature for us to feel what the characters feel, and want what they want.

Jane tried not to bite her lip. “Henry.  And George. How good of you both to call on me this rainy afternoon.”

If Sarah wants her man, Jane wants not so many men.  And what do you suppose George and Henry want?

Sometimes a story isn’t about what a character wants, but about what he fears.

“Davey, no one’s gonna think you’re fat.  Now get your shirt off and jump in.”

And sometimes the fear isn’t of the thing, but of saying it out loud, like the stories below.

He brought her to the swings.  If he couldn’t say it here, he could never say it at all.

The guitarist spoke a little softer.  “This song doesn’t need any drums.”

Melissa taped Michael Edwards’s senior picture deep inside her locker and shut the door before anyone could see.

The emotion can be simple, as in the next stories.

He bought a hat to go with his new riding lawnmower.

It would have been better if the day he was first issued a bullhorn was not also the day he fell in love with Stacie Stickler.

That bass!  Oooh that bass made her ankles and knees all twisty and turny, yah huh, yah huh.

Or it can be complex and contradictory.

Married him after all. Trying to love Sioux City.

He wore his old glasses on his first day of senior year.  He didn’t feel like people were ready to see him in his new ones.

He set down his rifle when he reached the buck.  His father and brother stood behind him.

In the last story, what is our hero feeling right now?  The exhilaration of the kill?  Compassion for the deer?  A desire to act in a way his father and brother would respect?  Probably all of them at once.  Emotions are often not easy to pin down.

And sometimes a story doesn’t just show an emotion in the present moment, but one anticipated in the future.

He packed away the ornaments and wrote a note to place in the last box: “This year you found the best tree ever.”

Charlie Close is the author of two volumes of very short stories, Kites & Weddings and Rough & Beautiful, available on Amazon.

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Don’t Be Afraid of the Ordinary (The Art of the Very Short Story)

This post is part of a series that explores very short stories – stories as short as a single breath. In just that small a space it is possible to capture moments with clarity, mystery, and emotional punch.

The series is to expose new readers to very short stories and demonstrate writing techniques that are useful for very short stories and many other kinds of writing.

Other posts in this series:

Introduction

Start in the Middle

Use Familiar Contexts

Small Choices Make a Big Difference

Go for Emotion

Metaphor

Appeal to the Senses

The Implied Character

Surprise

Misunderstanding

Musicality

 

Most of the stories we read are about the big things: big wars, big romances, big chases, big creatures that visit from far away.  Yet we spend most of our lives in the ordinary way doing ordinary things.  The big events are few, and most of how we see ourselves and others comes to us from small moments that we think are too unimportant to notice.

These are just the kinds of moments we can find meaning in if we learn to pay attention to them.  Let’s look at some stories that show us the value of the everyday experiences.

New Year’s Day.  Jerry took his book to the laundry room and sat on a drier.

Did Jerry meet the love of his life, the new resident of apartment 2B?  Did he find a secret stash of money behind the detergent dispenser?  Probably not.  It’s more likely that all he did was turn a bleak day and a boring chore into a pleasant afternoon.  And what’s wrong with that?

He looked down at his knuckles.  Then he kissed them.  Good thing no one else saw that.

All of us do things we assume no one else would understand.  And all of us take ourselves more seriously than others do.

He reached past the candle to pat her hand.  “Love you.”

She smiled.  “Love you too.  Is there anything in my teeth?”

It’s not the big things that make two people into a couple, the declarations of love and candlelight dinners.  It’s the intimacy they share in the little things they do together.

Chris flinched when he saw, carved into the lid under his desk, “Chris ‘72”.

Is Chris more or less unique than he thought he was?  Maybe both.

He carried his camera all the way to Istanbul and took pictures of people eating.

What’s ordinary and what’s extraordinary is in the eye of the beholder.  It’s one thing to know that Turks eat too.  It’s something else to see it yourself for the first time.

His karate skills were not yet amazing enough to slice a cabbage in midair.

There aren’t many things more ordinary than a cabbage, and yet our hero might make something incredible from it if he just keeps practicing.

She pulled out a club.  “Use the seven iron,” he said.

It’s just a game of golf between a couple, and it’s just a single moment in the game – and yet it shows us all we need to see for us to know what they’re like together.

Uncle Charlie tried to explain the old days of hating the Russians.

Sometimes what used to be ordinary no longer is.  One thing, however, is still as normal as ever: trying to get the young to understand and appreciate the past.

It always gave Vera a smile to type his memos: LO:ve.

Joy is where you find it.  The trick is not so much to know where to look for it, but rather to see it where it already is.

Charlie Close is the author of two volumes of very short stories, Kites & Weddings and Rough & Beautiful, available on Amazon.

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Small Choices Make a Big Difference (The Art of the Very Short Story)

This post is part of a series that explores very short stories – stories as short as a single breath. In just that small a space it is possible to capture moments with clarity, mystery, and emotional punch.

The series is to expose new readers to very short stories and demonstrate writing techniques that are useful for very short stories and many other kinds of writing.

Other posts in this series:

Introduction

Start in the Middle

Use Familiar Contexts

Don’t Be Afraid of the Ordinary

Go for Emotion

Metaphor

Appeal to the Senses

The Implied Character

Surprise

Misunderstanding

Musicality

 

All writing depends on the author to pay attention to word choice and phrasing, to make the writing clear and to make it sing.  This is all the more true with very short stories, where there are only ten or twenty words to work with.  If you don’t consider each word – and every punctuation mark and even every syllable – a good idea can come out as a flat story.  On the other hand, a well-chosen word can resonate beyond the word itself.

Let’s look at some examples of where small choices create the effect of the story.

He played a note on the piano.  “I’m dedicating this B-flat to Brianna.  Every time you hear it, darling, I’m thinking of you.”

This story contains several important details.  The word “darling” suggests the speaker is an older man.  The piano and the reference to the key of B-flat suggest that he’s about to play jazz, standards, or maybe classical music: again, something older, even quaint.  Notice also how the first sentence refers to Brianna in the third person.  He is speaking to an audience, not only to Brianna.  The scene is a party or perhaps a concert.  The occasion is festive and intimate at the same time.

Joey took his new crash cymbal to the basement.  This was the best Christmas ever!

Punctuation choices are important too.  The exclamation point tells us what Joey is going to do with the crash cymbal in the basement and lets us infer the impression it will make on the people upstairs.

He opened the door to the garage and looked around for the noise.  At first he didn’t see the deer’s eyes.

Another writer might have written “deer eyes” instead of “the deer’s eyes”.  The difference is subtle but important.  “Deer eyes” means some deer, an abstraction.  “The deer’s eyes” means this deer, sharing this moment with this man.

Todd hung his Metallica poster in the middle of the wall.  That’s what you can do when it’s your apartment.

If the author had written “You can do that when it’s your apartment”, it would have contained the same textual meaning: the poster is now on the wall.  But the wording “That’s what you can do” turns the act of hanging the poster into a declaration.   And the choice of what he’s hanging (a Metallica poster, not a flower arrangement, which would have been very nice too, it must be said) and where he’s hanging it (in his apartment, not someone else’s home, not a house) reinforces the scene of early adult independence.

Why wouldn’t anyone teach her how to twirl a baton?

The word “anyone” instead of a particular person heightens our sense of her frustration.  It helps us feel what it’s like to be a small girl with big ideas in a world of unfeeling grownups.

“What do you mean this shirt looks autumnal on me?”

Here a single syllable – “tum” – gives the story its meaning, both from the full vowel sound and its resonance with the word “tummy”.

Mom told Dad, don’t buy a pogo stick for Christmas.  Wait until summer, she said.  But Dad wouldn’t listen, and now he’s yelling at me.

The trick in this story isn’t any one word.  It’s in the repeated phrase structure of each sentence, reflecting the bouncing pogo stick.

She said, “Sometimes, I put my hand up first, when I don’t know, because I’m sure I will know, when Ms. Bennet calls on me.”

This story also uses rhythm, similar to “pogo stick”.  The girl’s speech is chopped into short breathless phrases, which allows us to intuit something of the girl’s personality.  Notice also how she says “when” Ms. Bennet calls on her, not “if”.

Sam remembered the day his mother said he could make the baloney sandwiches.  He had used too much mustard, but she said he could try again.

Do you see the key word in this story?  It’s the word “the” before “baloney”.  Without “the”, they are any baloney sandwiches and it doesn’t matter that Sam used too much mustard.  With “the” left in, they are part of a larger context.  Maybe they’re for a party and his mother wants to impress her guests.  Or maybe they have baloney sandwiches every Saturday afternoon.  Either way, there are expectations attached to the sandwiches and it matters to Sam that he didn’t meet them.   And this makes his mother’s compassion all the more powerful for him.

Note also the word “remembered”.  He still carries this moment with him.

Charlie Close is the author of two volumes of very short stories, Kites & Weddings and Rough & Beautiful, available on Amazon.

Related post: The picture that inspired “Kites and Weddings”.

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