E is for Emotional Choreography
A line I’ll often throw out to students facing the construction of their first ever short story is to think of as simple a plot as possible, then make it simpler. If someone is telling you the summary of their short story plot, by the third or fourth “and then…” alarm bells are ringing out. Any short story, even the most fleeting vignette, requires a plot, whereby the characters do things, or things happen to them, or things are revealed to the reader, in a particular order – it’s just not always helpful to try to break it down in those terms. The idea of emotional choreography can be more useful when talking about a story in which little takes place in the way of external action or happening but we are witness to a shift in the internal state of the character(s), and the writer’s job is to arrange the steps by which they experience this shift. In Mansfield’s A Dill Pickle, the action can be summed up in terms of Vera unbuttoning and then rebuttoning her coat, with a conversation in between, but the emotional choreography is worthy of Gene Kelly.
F is for Forbrydelsen
In 1995, Steven Bochco’s Murder One unravelled a single murder trial over 26 hour-long episodes. In a TV world in which the biorhythm of any crime was that it should be solved with time for a bit of banter at the end within the space of one hour, where the feature-length deliberations of Morse had seemed an impossible luxury, Murder One‘s progress towards the truth, led by Daniel Benzali’s Teddy Hoffman – the shaven-headed, ursine embodiment of Raymond Chandler’s line “Down these mean streets a man must go who is himself not mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid” – seemed more in keeping with the complexity and level of commitment we’d expect from a novel. When novelistic TV series, like The Sopranos, began to roll out of HBO and the other US networks, Bochco’s innovation receded into fond memory. Once high production values, narrative complexity and mumbled articulacy had become familiar to drama viewers, the crime-solving drama moved towards being the type of quality pulp that enabled you to switch your brain to autopilot without feeling you’d surrendered it to a tribe of reality show producers.
First airing in its native Denmark in 2007, but only reaching the UK when it was shown at the start of 2011 on BBC Four, Søren Sveistrup’sForbrydelsen (The Killing, but the poncey insistence on the Danish also serves to differentiate it from the patchy US remake) took on the police procedural genre. While crime, in general, and police procedural or criminal psychologist narratives, are staples of the fiction bestseller lists, as well as the TV ratings, and while “fiction bestseller” equates to novels rather than short stories, it’s also possible to argue that the Whodunnit is a pertinent model for short fiction. Getting to the truth, or a good enough truth to enable us to move on, is as much a short story reader and a Chandleresque detective-figure can hope for over the course of a story. Forbrydelsen‘s first series ran for 20 episodes, but each episode represented one day of an investigation into the murder of a teenage girl, and one day at a time in the grieving process of her family. So, while it had a similar novelistic scope to Murder One – and in Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund, a shrewd, sensitive, tunnel-visioned Sam Spade for our times, and for the future series of the drama to come – it often carried itself like a short story. As one example, Lund’s relationship with chewing gum is a crucial aspect of Gråbøl’s performance but it’s one never given overt reference in the script: we just see her chewing her way through the barriers – bureaucratic, emotional, political – that hamper her progress towards the truth. The correlation between her chewing and the stress tells us enough so that when the frustration piles up to the extent that she bums a cigarette from her colleague, Jan Meyer, an arc, reaching back to way before we knew any of the characters, is completed.
G is for Gil Scott-Heron
For all the reasons discussed here, and for the story told in a lyric like that forPieces Of A Man:
Saw my Daddy meet the mailman
and I heard the mailman say,
“Now, don’t you take this letter too hard now, Jimmy,
‘cos they’ve laid off nine others today.”
But he didn’t know what he was saying.
He could hardly understand
that he was only talking to
pieces of a man.
H is for Hunger
“Bit of a break from smoking the Bible. Eh?”
“Anyone work out which book is the best smoke?”
“We only smoke the Lamentations – right miserable cigarette.”
Hunger is Steve McQueen’s 2008 depiction of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes and dirty protests in the Maze prison, culminating in the death of the IRA prisoners’ Commanding Officer and newly-elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). The film, drawing on McQueen’s background as a Turner Prize-winning video artist, deploys the essential short story technique of observed detail to extraordinary effect, so much so that the genuinely harrowing scenes of filth, brutality, a shocking assassination and Sands’ lingering demise acquire a perverse luxury through the beautifully patient storytelling. The heart of the film, for which co-writer Enda Walsh deserves credit, is a 17-minute dialogue between Fassbender’s Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Dominic Moran. With just one change of shot after ten minutes, we are able to focus on the dialogue’s humour, tension, tragedy and politics, not to mention the relief – for us and, we can empathise, for Sands – to have this break from literally wading in shit. This clip is just the first chunk. There are breezeblocks of exposition in fiction – and then there’s this expositional sculpture:
I is for iPadding
Nothing at all wrong with first person narrative. Nothing wrong with streams of consciousness nor with charismatic narrators who are the stars of their own stories. Writing what you know: tip-top advice. We often enter into the process of writing short stories as an act of self-expression or memoir; we come via the poetic statement that’s acquired a narrative; via the anecdote; via life’s epiphanies or forks-in-the-road. And when I say “we”, we write “I”. “I” in fiction can be a Nick Carraway or a Charles Ryder, the unremarkable foil to the Gatsbys and Flytes that absorb the light throughout those novels. But “I” can also be an obstruction to any given scene or story. A writer can wrap themselves around every detail so every piece of information about place, action or other characters comes to the reader already evaluated and filed under a particular conclusive emotion. It can make for a narrative effect similar to having someone sitting next to you, talking all the way through a film you’re trying to follow, not only drowning out the dialogue but explaining the plot as well. Simple(-sounding) solution: get “I” to step back and allow us to see the sunset, the actual sunset and not just what “I” thinks about the sunset – we know “I” can see it, otherwise we wouldn’t have it narrated to us, so we get very little from “I looked across to the West and saw in the sky a beautiful sunset.”
J is for Johnny Cash
When you can sing a song like this, you’ll get a great reaction from any audience, but when you’re stuck in Folsom Prison or, as the crowd is here, in San Quentin, then the visit of a country&western superstar, singing songs about the life you used to lead and the one you’ve got now, will be a story you’ll be telling each other every day until your release, and every day thereafter. Confinement is a key to short fiction. One night in a cell might get you enough material for a short novel, if you’re Roberto Bolaño (By Night In Chile), and a train journey might provide you with a murder mystery novel, but you’d beter hope that train’s the Orient Express: for the 13.34 from Irlam to Widnes, you’re going to need a short story. A restricted temporal or spatial setting alerts the reader to the idea that what happens here and now matters: what’s being described is not leading you to anything or anywhere else more important so stick with it, pay attention to every clue and, eventually, you’re going to find that sonofabitch that named you Sue.
K is for Stanley Kunitz
His last published poem, written and performed here at the age of 100. “What makes the engine go? Desire, desire, desire.” This is a poem that anyone, but especially each and every writer, needs to “remind me who I am” and this video is a short story in itself: