5 short stories that will improve your own writing
March 27, 2015
I am convinced writing short stories is the best way to learn craft. You can afford to try different techniques without killing two years. Hone your skills by knocking out a short story instead of hunkering over the keyboard with a great idea for the beginning of a novel-length manuscript, getting bogged down in the middle and shoving it in a drawer because something just isn’t working.
Short stories are like the poetry of novel writing. They have to capture you up front and propel you through, but they also need to leave you with a certain feeling about the piece. There’s no time for lengthy exposition. Get to the stakes quick. Build tension to a satisfying payoff for the reader. A well-crafted short story creates world, story, and character all in the first page. It’s flash fiction with meat, a novel on Nutra-Slim. Here are a few short stories that made me fall in love with the genre, and how each can specifically improve your writing skills.
1. Tobias Wolff ‘s “Bullet in the Brain” – We should not like the irritable, jaded protagonist. The humor jutted up against horror pulls us through, and then the touching flashbacks at the end give him a humanity and universality. We are there with him on that bank floor, that baseball field. Nancy Zafris from Kenyon Review handed this story out in a workshop. For the following two years I wrote linked short stories all triggered from this one. I don’t recommend you write a collection where the majority of your characters die! I’m still trying to work it out so the collection holds together, and hope to publish it sometime next year. But, that’s what a great short story can do – stick with you as a reader and give you an example to emulate as a writer.
2. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “A Private Experience” in That Thing Around Your Neck – Adichie’s use of flash forwards is masterful in this story. She effortlessly switches time to show us what’s going to happen because of the situation the characters are in, and then pulls us right back into the present story. It is a great technique to learn. Her juxtaposition of characters makes for automatic tension and meaning in this tale.
3. Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “Good Country People” – The queen of short story, O’Connor can spin a web of details that go beyond the ordinary. Her worlds tend to be in expected normalcy, and then she throws the unexpected at you – a murderer of old ladies, a fake bible salesman. Her stories are true classics of the form, and she builds characters wonderfully.
4. George Saunders’ “Sea Oak” – If O’Connor has ordinary worlds, Saunders has the complete opposite. This story focuses around a zombie aunt of a man who works for tips from ladies at a joint called Joysticks. It’s just plain fun and kooky. You can practically see the smirk on Saunders’ face as you read. Follow his lead, don’t be afraid to play with worlds and go extreme. That’s part of the beauty of the form. Where a novel might be too long for a reader to stay with you in a crazy, unexpected world, the short story is the perfect length to go outlandish.
5. Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” – One of my favorite short stories. This one is so creepy, even though she only hints at the horror. Her description of Arnold Friend is so bizarre, and, yet she gathered the idea from a news story of a serial killer, The Pied Piper of Tucson, who stuffed his boots and wore makeup to attract his victims. That’s another reason to utilize the short story form – it can give you an outlet to follow those wacky ideas that pop up. If a story jumps into your lap, jot it down. Dwell on the idea for a few days and then write it. Read and revise it. Have others critique it; after all, it’s a short story, so they can focus on the entirety of it and give feedback more readily. The ability to focus on the entirety of a story is gold for an improving writer, in order to hone each aspect that goes into creating an excellent story no matter what length.
I know a talented writer with an MFA who’s been working on the same short story for years. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you’re still completing other pieces at the same time and not just stuck. Perhaps, that’s the greatest gift of the form – learning when a whole story is complete, and being able to let it go to be shared.
Kim Drew Wright has fiction and poetry with over a dozen literary journals and organizations. Check out her debut collection of short stories, The Strangeness of Men. Find out more at KIMDREWWRIGHT.COM or sign up for her newsletter, Real Spiel - for witty readers and writers.