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I recently attended a weeklong workshop at the venerable University of Iowa. This was my second year, and it seemed this time around more was gained from the experience. It was an advanced short story workshop.
Here are a few of the insights I took away.
Keep your promises. The craft books all say it, Chekhov’s gun being the best example. Nevertheless, until it appears in your own work, it’s hard to see a promise made at the beginning that wasn’t kept. In my case, I’d set up the reader to expect a resolution to something on page one, and didn’t realize it. It took a seasoned reader to point it out. My first instinct was to delete the promise until I realized it would be a more satisfying read to come up with a plausible way to keep the promise.
Combine Characters. Short stories are inherently, well, short. Too many characters, especially if they serve a nonessential purpose in the story, should either be eliminated or better, combined with an essential character to get the work done but without unnecessarily confusing the reader. If multiple characters are needed, say a bar scene, don’t try to give names to everyone, but do give a sort of handle, or code to differentiate the masses for the reader.
Titles Should Do Double Duty. We went through several examples of titles that were both intriguing and satisfying. Here’s a change I made to one of my own. The title went from “The Frog with the Red Spot” to “What Did the Frog Say”. The latter came from an actual line in the story. Using a line within the story is a much better set up. The reader discovers the meaning of the title while immersed in the story.
Why is more important than How or What. Getting characters moving, talking and acting is important, but the action shouldn’t get in the way of understanding why a character made one choice over another. Whether through interior dialogue, or gestures, a character’s intent is more meaningful than the action itself. A reader will keep a tally of questions if the writer doesn’t provide the emotional logic behind the action.
The Page Two Move. The story starts in the dramatic present and then suddenly comes to a halt on page two as the author stops to provide the back-story. The more a story unfolds without flashbacks full of only description and exposition, the more interesting it is for the reader. Stay in the dramatic present as much and as long as possible.
Subjecting your story to a room full of strangers is a painful experience. However, often strangers are the ones who help us see our story for what it can be, and offer suggestions that can satisfy the reader even more. And, that’s what it’s all about.