Shaping the Short Story

A piece of fiction writing—a short story, for example—has two distinct elements to it. The first we can call synchronic, which means existing at one and the same time; the second is diachronic, which means existing through time.

Or to put it another way, a piece of fiction writing has both structure and flow.

Fiction writers must become artists in both domains, developing aesthetic skills that are akin to a water-slide designer’s. They must build structures that impress upon the intellect, and develop a sense of flow to tickle their reader’s sensations.

The synchronic domain of fiction writing—its structure—usually becomes manifest in the arrangement of a story’s scenes, but in a short story, where the entirety of the text may consist of only one scene, the synchronic domain has to become manifest in something else entirely.

When it comes to short stories, where does the structure come from?

Let’s begin by defining the short story as a narrative text that is intended to provide the reader with a unitary effect. As Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition

I prefer commencing [the composition process] with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest — I say to myself, in the first place, ‘Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?’

The structure of a short story, then, comes not from the arrangement of scenes, but from the arrangement of sensations and impressions experienced by the reader, an arrangement designed to leave the reader, at the end of the text, experiencing a unitary effect.

James Joyce said that he wrote his stories with an aim towards providing his reader with the experience of an epiphany. In Stephen Hero, a precursor to the text that became A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, Joyce wrote:

By an epiphany he meant ‘a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.

When Joyce writes, “vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind,” he’s using “vulgar” in its Latin sense, meaning “common and ordinary.” It’s important to note the radical nature of Joyce’s project. His stories try to record the presence of the spirit as it manifests in everyday objects, events, and people.

Joyce continues:

The clock of the Ballast Office was capable of an epiphany….I will pass it time after time, allude to it, refer to it, catch a glimpse of it. It is only an item in the catalogue of Dublin’s street furniture. Then all at once I see it and I know at once what it is: epiphany…

Joyce further explains the process of epiphany via Thomas Aquinas’ theory of beauty, summarizing:

First we recognise that the object is one integral thing, then we recognise that it is an organised composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognise that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.

For Joyce, epiphanies are the result of a structural beauty, which is comprised by the quality of an object’s “integrity, symmetry, and radiance.”

Of course, short story writers can aim at different effects than Joyce’s epiphany, but the success of their project will still be decided by the story’s integrity, symmetry, and radiance.

What do these words mean in the context of the short story?

Aquinas (and Joyce) use “integrity” to speak about an object’s wholeness. When you come across an object in the world, you have to first discern the object from the world around it, which means you have to divide the world into the object and not the object. Sometimes you have to combine several parts to actually perceive the whole, i.e., a chair may be comprised of two arms, a back, a seat, four legs, a handle to lift a footrest, cushions, multiple fabrics, screws, nails, etc., but even then, it is still a chair.

A short story is not a collection of random words on a page, nor a collection of random sentences, settings, characters, events. The parts of a short story must work together to form a whole. This is what it means for a short story to have integrity.

Additionally, integrity implies that nothing extraneous is included in a short story. If some character, event, object, setting, or even a word is not absolutely necessary to the integrity of the whole, then the writer should have enough integrity to excise it from the final draft. By deleting the extraneous, the writer begins to achieve what we’ve called “symmetry.”

Symmetry can only be appreciated through a process of analysis. As Joyce writes, we must “consider the object in whole and in part, in relation to itself and to other objects, examine the balance of its parts, contemplate the form of the object, traverse every cranny of the structure.” Accomplishing this, we can begin to appreciate an object’s symmetry.

Short story writers can use the concept of symmetry to help them decide what needs to come next. When drafting a story, writers are continually faced with the question of the blinking cursor, the question of what should they write now!

One way to find the answer is through symmetry. If the writer knows that her final story must, in some way, achieve symmetry, then she can examine what she’s already written with an eye towards putting it in balance. This balance could require changes to something major, such as the plot, or to something minor, such as the quantity of words the writer uses to describe the physical appearance of her secondary characters; the key is to discover those elements of the text that are out of balance with the others, and to decide if something can or should be done to correct them, whether through deletion or extension.

Symmetry helps the writer to know that her “story” is complete (and by story, I mean “narration of the plot”). When the beginning, middle, and end of the story achieve a kind of symmetry, when every extra scene has been cut and every extra line of dialogue has been deleted, the writer can stop working on the “story” part of her text and start focusing on its “radiance.”

When it comes to short stories (or really, all creative writing), radiance refers to the text’s clarity of vision. When a text is radiant, it lacks a certain fuzziness, a certain murkiness; it shines a clear light into the reader’s imagination and dispels the shadows of ambiguity (this is not to say that a short story can’t be ambiguous, but it is to say that its ambiguities must be radiant).

By placing a value on the radiance of the text, the short story writer ensures that her reader won’t wander lost and alone through a fog of impreciseness. The writer reads through her draft—”traverse(s) every cranny of the structure”—and revises all those instances where she used an imprecise phrase.

For example, where she once wrote “He looked at the woman, his eyes full of determination,” she now writes, “He looked at the woman the way a bull looks at a red cape.” The writer needs the look on her character’s face to radiate in the mind of her reader, but her original phrase, “eyes full of determination” created a murky image at best; the image of the bull is clearer, and it shows the determination rather than tells it.

(In a later draft, the writer may want to improve the phrase by changing it from an analogy to a metaphor, but we don’t need to take that trip with her. Why is a metaphor an improvement over an analogy, you ask? Because analogies create two images in the reader’s mind, requiring the reader to do the heavy work of transferring the qualities of one image onto the aspects of the other; metaphors, on the other hand, impregnate one object with the qualities of another, providing a single image for the reader to examine; a metaphor allows one image to shine with the radiance of another.)

Integrity. Symmetry. And Radiance.

If writers focus on these three aspects of the text, the beauty of their short stories will begin to take shape.

Of course, in the end, short stories will not only be judged by their beautiful structure, but also by the way the spirit of the text rises from the dead pulp and enters into meaningful communion with the reader. If integrity, symmetry, and radiance defines the story’s structure, it is this quality—this quality of rising and communing—that defines the story’s flow.

But we’ll talk about that some other time.