On Tuesday I shared some insights from a short story class I took last semester. I talked about one line of characterization, and how it completely mischaracterized my character in the exercise’s context.
I said the single line got at the heart of what I learned, but in the end it was a really minor change. Over the course of the semester, I completely rewrote two stories, learning all the way what I was doing wrong. Here’s more:
That’s just one line, but it exposes many of the lessons I had to learn. I’d likewise taken for granted that Beth Anne’s crippling dependence would be clear, her real life need to take control (not just to find some money). Because of that, several readers found her entirely unsympathetic and the ending unsatisfying when she chose to run her own business rather than accept an easy payout.
I’d assumed also Beth Anne’s self-aware complicity in and acceptance of that dependence on her husband, but some readers took her for a victim of his bad money management (rather than a housewife willingly uninvolved), so they doubted her tender feelings for her departed husband as well as her desire to keep a property that had meant much to him.
All of that was meant as texture, meant as subtlety, meant as background shades to the immediate conflicts and confrontations I had structured my three short scenes around, as Beth Anne learned she had to sell the land, realized she couldn’t let it go, then decided she wouldn’t (and in the process, how she’d attempt to own her independence).
Unfortunately, none of it came through. It took two rounds of feedback before I even fully understood that. I felt, instead, the readers simply wanted to discuss a different topic (whether it was feminism or fiscal responsibility or parenthood). It took a while before I understood, not that they refused to engage with the topic I’d selected, but that I’d failed to make it clear what that topic was supposed to be.
“Handle with Care”
Of course, my second story went the same. I’d always wanted to write a protagonist with serious social anxiety, as a kind of challenge, and I succeeded just enough that the character’s quirk became the story’s topic.
I’d meant that story to be about connecting with other people. It was about loneliness and friendship. They seemed like easy topics for a character predisposed to avoiding people, but his vividness of trait stole the show.
I made it worse with my scene selection, narrowing my focus to just the scenes that mattered in my protagonist’s arc of growth—that is, his interactions with the pretty girl at the office. But then my readers tried to find the story’s theme of romantic competition or obsession or infidelity.
None of that was actually in the story I wrote. It all came from the stories my readers ended up telling themselves. But lacking clear guidance from me, they took the story in a direction that left it mutilated and left them unsatisfied. I’d picked those scenes in an attempt to solve one problem—my difficulty telling a whole story in such a small number of words—and in the process created a new problem altogether.
I was able to correct that problem, once again, by raising up from subtext some of the protagonist’s desires, but also just by adding a handful of other scenes without Kelly. I used those scenes to show what he was missing in himself, and that tightened reader focus on his actions and motivations in the scenes he did share with her.
That has been an education. I’m happy with these two stories, even with the mediocre grades the professor gave me, because I’ve done as much with them as I can clearly see. Any other changes I could make would be made blind, guessing what might satisfy.
That’s not to say I’m finished learning or that this is as good as I get, but it’s as much as I can do with these two pieces. I’m hampered there by the twin handicaps I mentioned Tuesday: an unfamiliar format and an unfamiliar genre.
I’ve learned enough now to succeed with short stories, I’m convinced, but if I want to thrive within the “literary” category, I’ll need a lot more practice, start to finish, before further polishing will do me any good. I’ll probably need research, as well, reading other mainstream works to learn the tropes and types and conventions.
Overall, I’m satisfied. I’ve learned to build a story arc in twenty pages. I’ve learned where my long-form instincts will tend to lead me wrong, and I’ve learned tricks to manage that.
I’ve learned (again) the importance of audience analysis in good storycraft, and I’ve learned the outer edges of an unfamiliar genre.
Best of all, I’ve learned enough confidence with the format to practice on my own, to wade through trial and error, and ultimately that’s the only way to grow.