Neophytes often begin with genre fiction as being easy stuff to get into. And this is where I stumble when I critique their work. Their characters are overdrawn, descriptions distract from plot flow, story lines get bogged down in irrelevancies, and memoir fogs the exposition.
I was hauled back to the basics of conventional writing by James Wood, professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard, reviewing books in the New Yorker. Key here is his word convention: what today’s reader expects.
Stephen Crane could write in, “The Little Regiment,” in 1896, “And yet the spirit of this little city, its quaint individuality, poised in the air about the ruins, defying the guns, the sweeping volleys; holding in contempt those avaricious blazes which attacked many dwellings. The hard earthen sidewalks proclaimed the games that had been played there during long lazy days.” And so on. No reader today would patiently suffer an omniscient author describing an anthropomorphic little city.
Old fashioned? Yes. Now what are the new fashions we expect when approaching a story? Conventions are akin to entering a strange building and knowing where the facilities are located. Entering a dark house, we want to know the stairs will have handrails and there will be light switches next to the doors.
Here are a few of the amenities—Wood’s “basic grammar”—we look for:
Sweep and Focus. Wood sees “cinematic sweep followed by the selection of small, telling details” at the core of realist fiction. It’s the vernacular in which mainstream stories are written—the very language readers anticipate, beginning with the establishing location shot. (I stepped from the air-conditioned bus into another world. Humid air made me recoil as I dropped my bag and stared at the shimmering white courthouse, the blank-faced stores, the dusty asphalt of an empty street.)1
A Mix of Detail. These are the small, crystal-clear items that define a person in a few words. (Sam’s money needed to be leashed to keep it from running into a bar or bookstore. I figured I’d hit the middle class when I could afford to kill cockroaches with Raid spray instead of a hammer. Sam would need to borrow the hammer.)2
Specifics, Not Generalities. Where did Crane get off using a word like “quaint,” and what “games” were played there? Readers want details. (Evenings started with us sitting on a stoop drinking Rheingold. Then someone would suggest going over to Second Avenue to get a bialy smothered in cream cheese, onions and pickled herring. Saturdays, there were demonstrations and anti-war protests, but no one wanted to get involved. It was too hot and depersonalizing to carry a placard. Our Tar Beach was the rooftop on East Sixth Street. Always there was the sound of drums echoing down the street.)3
Characterization through Minutiae. Flash fiction’s word limitations require the most concise way of drawing a character. Done once—and well—you may not need to revisit your character’s description. (Sarah didn’t open up much. She kept her emotions tightly packaged like a souvenir piece of wedding cake, full of memories but totally indigestible.)4
Padding. A little filler helps a story the way bread extends a good meatloaf. Padding doesn’t move the story ahead as much as it lets the reader catch a breath and—hopefully—empathize with a character. (What made me feel so fine was the danger that I was Pinocchio and somebody would turn me into a donkey for running away to the circus. I don’t think Pinocchio ever had a girl hanging onto his arm, though. The warm sweat of her hand made the forbidden pleasure feel specially good.)5
Memories. Recollection and reflection offer depth to a plot, a protagonist or a situation. It’s also a way to bring in a back story. (They had been solicitous after David Marshall Sullivan’s coronary embolism. They regretted that by dying unexpectedly he hadn’t lived up to his contract, but they didn’t hold that against her when she was severed. They said it was just a corporate reorganization. Their severance package was generous when they fired her, but her own regrets had more to do with losing David than their employer.)6
Lyrical Phrasing. A touch of poesy ratchets the story up a notch over pedestrian writing. Call it a blossom dropped on a sidewalk; it heightens the beauty. (The trail of her footsteps in the sand back to L.A. would imitate those just-born turtles flailing their way to the sea to drink up a new life.)7
Writing instructors demand a “story arc,” from the introductory “narrative hook.” through increasing suspense, and on to a “blackest moment” before the story is resolved. This is satisfying to the reader, even if it’s predictable. At its clumsiest (and especially in movies), it requires the hero to duke it out mano a mano with the enemy, the alien, or the undead until the nemesis is properly dispatched and the screen fades to black. In flash, the resolution needs to take place in a final paragraph or even the concluding sentence. (Humans would probably call our love incest, but there’s no comparable feeling among androids.)8
Your challenge then, at least until your experimental or literary masterpiece is created, is to fulfill these conventions in the most inventive and entertaining manner. Grammar, sweep, detail, specifics, characterization, padding, memory and lyricism all function in greater or lesser amounts as the tools to build a short story. Sidestep or ignore them and the reader won’t recognize the “reality” of your story.
All parenthetical examples are from published stories I’ve written.
1. “Gothic Revival,” Big Pulp
2. “Sarah, My Donna and Child,” Cruising the Green of Second Avenue
3. “Big Willa and a Push Toward the Edge,” Wild Child Publishing
4. “The Ghost on the IND Line,” Cruising the Green of Second Avenue
5. “Louise from the Bar,” Paradigm Journal
6. “Cable Window,” Bewildering Stories
7. “Last Year’s Icon,” Every Day Fiction
8. “Who Dares Call It Murder?” OG Opinion Guy