When I first moved to Colorado Springs, we lived right smack downtown. I was often in my kitchen at noon (feeding the toddler) when the bells in all the surrounding churches started. It was like being caught in the middle of a storm of sound, and it left you a little dizzy afterwards, as if you still heard bells that were no longer sounding.
This is exactly what you want to do with a short story.
Oh, a novel too, mind you. But the tools and the implements of making people continue to dream upon your novel are different than the tools that make a short story unforgettable.
I learned early, mostly because I was a child full of iniquity, that the most important parts of a short story were the beginning and the end.
People will tell you that every little bit of a short story, ever sentence, every punctuation mark, has to be absolutely perfect.
Don’t listen to them.
Provided you’re not so bad that you actually lose people in the middle, you can have quite a few little sins there. Extra words, bits just for fun. In fact, cleaning a short too much can kill it and turn it into a lifeless “recital piece.”
BUT your beginning and your end have to be flawless in their form and function.
The beginning has to hook. That means you have to open with a zinger. Don’t give me long reminiscences about poor uncle Albert’s lost teeth. No, start with a punch. “I have no teeth and I must eat steak.” Okay, not one of your great lines of literature, but better than, “We noticed that uncle Albert had lost his teeth in the spring of seventy nine.” That line, unless followed up by “That was the year the wild chickens laid waste to (and upon) the western states. The yolk was on us.” Is going to put people to sleep. In fact, I yawned while writing it.
To be serious, the beginning has to catch you and hold you. I don’t think I ever wrote a better beginning line than “Dying is easy. It’s staying alive afterwards that’s difficult.” However, there have been better lines than mine, of course.
Unfortunately, because what I read mostly are novels, that’s what comes to mind first.
It was a pleasure to burn.
All my life I’ve wanted to go to Earth.
It was a warm night when a fist knocked at the door so hard the hinges bent.
This is the Discworld, which travels through space on the back of four elephants which themselves stand on the shell of Great A’Tuin, the sky turtle.
On one otherwise normal Tuedsay evening, I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.
The difference is this. In a novel, you might have a page or so to get going. In a short story, you need to hook us RIGHT from the beginning and drag us in, kicking and screaming.
Once you’ve hooked us, and we know we’re going to read about these characters come heck or high water, you can relax a little. Not to the point the reader asks what he’s doing there, but just a little. You can get playful and make it fun.
But after the climax, when you’re bringing the reader back to his upright and locked position, you need to do something more: you need to give them something to remember you by.
In novels, this is often the world or the character, or something else that gets them dreaming. How many kids dreamed of going to Hogwarts with Harry? How many of us have flown dragons on Pern in our dreams?
I’m not saying that’s impossible with a short story. It’s just that short stories are normally too small to contain that type of world building/character/adventure.
What you’re left with, therefore is concentrated emotion or idea, or preferably both.
By the time you hit the last few lines of your stories, you should have some idea what the idea or emotion you’re trying to convey is. If you don’t, figure it out, and then tie it all together.
A good last line – A Rose for Emily – can turn an entire story on its head, but a last line doesn’t need to be surprising to be good.
I was looking for examples on my semi-packed shelves, and of course can’t find any, but I shouldn’t have to. A short story’s final lines should be GOOD. Either poetic or action, or whatever the tone of the short is should be reinforced, tied together, preferably in a way that will keep the reader thinking.
Find the most powerful thought in your story, then craft a line that makes it ring like a bell in the reader’s heads after the story is over. It doesn’t need to be a surprise. It just needs to tie it all together.
Okay, some practice might be needed. I’m still practicing. But sometimes it works.
And when it works it’s like standing in my kitchen, with phantom bells ringing in my ears, long after the sound has ceased.
Next week, Fiddle, Twiddle and Revise.