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Short Story Course – Style and Presentation
Lesson 8 of the Short Story Course
It is one thing to have a good story to tell; it is another to tell it in the right way. That’s where style and presentation come in.
Simplicity is the first principle to keep in mind while writing the short story. Many beginning authors think that ornate language is impressive and end up producing writing which sounds forced and stilted. R.L. Stevenson can still be cited as a writer who used a simple, direct form of narration. His style did not age over the years as did that of Dickens, Scott, Thackeray and Trollope who wrote according to the demands of the period. They are difficult reading for many readers today.
Writing Style Today
The present style of writing reflects today’s fast-paced lifestyle. Long descriptive passages as in the work of Dickens feel like a drag, which is not to belittle the work of Victorian authors whose skills in characterisation and big dramatic plots are remarkable.
We’re often told to show, not tell, No longer can we describe the feelings, thoughts and actions of our characters. These should become evident through actions, expressions, tone of voice and gestures. Instead of writing “Sally was tired”, you should write: “Sally adjusted the cushion behind her aching back wearily. All the digging and planting during the day to make her garden ready for the flower show just a couple of months away, had made the ache worse.”
So now actually we are using more words not less, but we are revealing the character’s thoughts through their actions; it is no longer the writer addressing the reader.
However when we describe a room or scenery, we need to do it in fewer words. You must try to use words which make the room seem real. “As she walked into the room, Sally felt as though the furniture from six rooms had been crammed into it.”
It is this choice of words that distinguishes the amateur from the craftsman.
Ernest Hemingway, known for his close writing conveys the status of the narrator in the first two dozen words of his great story ‘The Light of the World’: “When he saw us come in the door, the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass cover son the two free-lunch bowls.”
We can straightaway see the two down-at-heel tramps walking in.
Learn Economical Writing from the Movies
Close writing especially applies to dialogue, and this we can learn from the film and TV director.
Notice that in the finest films, the dialogue is tight. There are no unnecessary sentences or phrases. This lends itself to progress of the action and the film does not drag. A character does not come alive until he speaks according to A.E. Coppard, British author and poet.
Gestures Flesh Out Characters
Make your characters use their arms and legs as well as their lips, heads and faces, but take care not to write so economically that your writing is dead. Having cut out superfluous description, remember to add the description necessary to make your characters more individual, particularly in regard to emotion.
Avoid Cliches in Your Writing
Editors are always on the lookout for original work. Use the unexpected word or phrase. Be aware when you’re slipping into clichéd writing. The neat turn of phrase works even better in dialogue. Ian Hay’s story ‘The Midshipmaid’ offers an example when someone cast for a part in some amateur theatricals on bard a warship asks the bo’sun his opinion of the bowler hat he is to wear.
“Throw it overboard,” says the bo’sun; “an’ don’t take it off, either.”
A simile can strike the imagination as in one of Rudyard Kipling’s stories when a character describes the effect of water rising above the bulwarks of a ship: “At that tense moment,” said the man, “it looked just like a banjo string drawn tight.”
The repetition of “he said,” “she said” will become monotonous when n several characters are talking. You can vary these with “answered,” “replied” or better still use actions and expressions: “The girl’s thin lips tightened as she spoke;” “There was something sinister in the man’s tone.”
The Unobtrusive Author
Avoid obtruding yourself as an author. Don’t write: “Little did he know,” or “As we shall soon see” as a hint to the reader of impending dramatic development, or worse, speak of “our hero” or “our heroine” which is wording that is dead and deserves to be. Be invisible as the author. Don’t address the reader. Don’t get between the story and the reader. Let your characters moralise and reflect.
Avoid Obsolete Phrasing
Don’t mimic the style of authors of many years ago and write: ‘On a certain dark night in October of the year of grace, 183-, there might have been seen a man,” etc. That is obsolete phrasing.
Pay Attention to Punctuation
Beginning authors are often guilty of improper punctuation. A common fault is to write: “ Don’t get up too early.” Said the Count. “ There should be a comma instead of the full stop before the “said” and no capital “S”. Many writers use too many commas in a passage, thus interrupting its continuity. Dots (ellipses) and dashes should be used as little as possible.
Alright or All Right? Lay or Lie?
Don’t use “Alright” for “All right.” Or “lay” for “lie” as in “Let me lay down.” These are very common mistakes in these times.
Be a Sensitive Writer
Don’t make fun of religion or use objectionable expletives. Don’t be cynical. It’s easy and tempting to jibe at human weaknesses , but if you write this way, you’ll only please a small section of the many readers to whom you are appealing. Don’t set out to be a writer who can only see what is to be condemned and jeered at. Work like this might attract some notoriety, but it does not have lasting value.
Choose the Right Title for Your Story
This is very important, much like an ad’s headline. Would you read on? Be specific in your title. There’s a huge difference between the commonplace ‘A Slight Mistake” and the intriguing “My Adventures with a Tiger.” However, editorial tastes vary so when you’re submitting a story to a magazine, study the titles of its stories. As for using the name of your main character as your title, this is a better technique for novels. The title of a short story should be intriguing.
How to Create an Interesting Title
Study your story closely for emotions and atmosphere. Is there a much used phrase such as “Time for bed” which can be used as a title? Is it an adventure, romance or mystery? Try to summarise the story’s plot in one sentence. This could give you an idea.
Atmosphere is not easily understood by the new writer and not easily created by any. Although in the short space of the short story, there’s can’t be much description, it is possible to create atmosphere. A ghost story can have a gloomy old house in the desolate countryside for a setting. In ‘The Birds’, Daphne du Maurier created with great skill the atmosphere that surrounds Nat Hocken, the disabled farmhand. One can sense the silent, menacing enmity of the birds as they band together to wreak their vengeance.
Take care not to force atmosphere. It should seem natural, the only setting that can befit the narration.
Exercise - Lesson 8 - Faces on the Wall
Write a story between 2000 to 3,500 words with definite atmosphere. Whatever the setting or background, do not ignore the claim of dramatic action; it is primarily a story that is wanted.
Faces on the Wall
They tell me I see things that never were, I play games with the clouds. I am a dreamer, not a doer. They tell me I live in an ivory tower. It is best this way. It is struggle enough to face what is within me and come to peace with it.
When the moon is full, I leave the door to the balcony ajar so the moonlight may light the many stars on the dark blue ceiling. On such moonlit nights, my bedroom envelops me like the walls of a womb. Beyond the palm‑fringed balcony, the whitewashed building with a corrugated roof becomes the Great Pyramid.
The rains have been heavy this year, soaking through the walls, making patterns. My mother's face, as I had painted her in a high school painting competition, her eyes veined with red. Mother, who has scarred my knees forever and gone away. I may never say to her, "Mother, look how hard you hurt me!" She was beautiful. Beauty and the Beast.
The Beast is here too, on the wall, jaws agape, ready to devour. Sometimes he is beautiful Eros with flamboyant wings. He grins at me, the leering, toothy grin of a satyr. I dream about The Beast. There must be some way to arouse him, says my dreaming self. I have mother's madness in my veins. I see too much, too soon.
Today when I saw my lover Joao through the window, he wore the face of The Beast. I stifled my scream, stifled my cry of" Joao, you've had an accident!" But when he bent to kiss me, I turned away. His lips dripped blood on my lips.
"What's wrong?" he said, holding me away from him.
"Are you real?" I said.
"You look like you're seeing a ghost."
The scar was livid on his face. I touched it, running my finger across his cheek. "How did you get that?"
"You're seeing things again, Nadine," he sighed.
"You don't love me anymore, ever since..." He interrupted me.
"Ever since when, what are you talking about?"
"Ever since I've been telling you about seeing things that never were," I said. "You must think I'm insane." The momentary silence seemed an eternity. Was he about to disown me like my friends had?
"No, I don't think you're insane, I think you live inside your mind too much." He caressed my head. I did not like him caressing my head. It made me want to weep. It made me want to stop struggling, stop being brave.
"I want to show you something," I said, taking him by the hand to my bedroom wall. "Look carefully, what do you see?" I thought then, Now I'll know the Truth. He looked at the shapes a long time before he turned to me with an exasperated smile. "I see a dolphin with an elephant's snout."
"This," I said, outlining the face on the wall with my finger, "what do you see, a dolphin?" Panic was beginning to numb my fingers.
"Well," he cocked his head to stare at the wall, "a dragon, maybe...what do you see?"
"It's The Beast with the grin of a satyr! Can't you see it?" I cried. "And sometimes...sometimes it's Eros. Look again, Joao!"
"Relax Nadine. It's all right if you see The Beast or Eros, no two people will see the same thing when the rain is at play."
Yet some nights I dream of Eros with his flamboyant wings. My lighted candle does not rouse him. I am blessed. How beautiful he is, skin gleaming, hair spun gold. How still he lies as my eyes drink him in. But it is The Beast who visits me more often. His is the last face I see before I pull the covers over my head. I am afraid to sleep. I pray to Eros every night.
I do not know how long Joao will take to tire of my sudden revulsion for him. Yes, that is what it is, this thing I feel for Joao ‑ sudden revulsion.
"You're afraid of The Beast," he tells me, "I'm not The Beast!"
I am afraid for my love, my sanity.
"I see The Beast in you, Joao," I say.
"Perhaps it's my nose," he says, smiling.
That night The Beast spoke to me from the wall. His deep voice groped at me through the satin of my sheets.
"Come to me," it said. "Come to me. I am the mate you have been seeking. Come to me, I shall make you immortal."
"And I will never die!" I hissed to The Beast in the moonlight. "But I'm not looking for you, I'm not looking for The Beast!"
"You will not admit it even in your dreams," he said, but you are looking for me. Deep within, you crave my abandon, my power. I walk the easy path of mindless evil. I do not struggle to save my soul. I have no soul. I can be cruel... like you."
"I am afraid for my love. I see you in him. I am afraid to kiss him!" I rose from my bed and went to him.
"You are afraid of an inglorious love!"
"I am an artist of the beautiful. I could never love you!" I cried.
"Do not taunt me," said The Beast. And I was afraid.
I wanted to wipe The Beast from my wall. To see him was to lose myself. Every hour I watched for a twitch of a muscle in his face, imagined thathis terrible,slanted eyes grew alive with moisture. Every time I passed the wall, I expected a claw to stop me and draw me into the concrete. Sometimes, deep in the nights, I woke to stare at The Beast by candlelight, praying that he would not leap out at me, flesh and blood at last. I scrubbed at his face till my arms ached. The Beast stayed. He laughed at me a satyr's laugh. I began to see him everywhere. At the library, at work, at the bus stand, in the theatre, blazing at me from the big screen even when Joao's hand held mine.
Joao, poor, patient Joao thought I had to see a psychiatrist.
"You think I'm crazy, I know , I know!" I said, clutching at his arm.
"I think you're depressed, Nadine." He held me but I did not look into his face. The Beast was always ready to erupt from his eyes, ready to drip blood. I dreamed of Joao turning into The Beast and woke screaming. I dreamed of his mouth on my throat, his teeth sinking softly into my skin, felt the warm trickle of my blood between my breasts.
When Joao reached for my hand, I shrank from him. It was not the hand I knew so well. There were claws on it. Long, purple claws with dried blood under the nails.
"This can't go on!" he said.
"What?" I said sharply, "My shrinking from you?"
"Partly," he said in his don't‑fight‑me voice. "Nadine, you must meet this psychiatrist friend of mine. We will not tell anyone else about this. I promise."
"I have already got myself a psychiatrist," I almost screamed, "and it's free!" It was The Beast I was thinking of. He had already spoken to me. Words from a song I love flashed through my mind.
"Will you offer your throat to the Wolf with the Red Roses?" "Will he offer me his jaws?"
"And will he offer me his hunger?"
"And will he starve without me?"
"Yes. I will offer my throat to the wolf with the Red Roses!"
I wanted to scream at Joao ‑"Will you give me up for a kiss?" But I wanted him to stay for his own reasons, not mine. Not because he pitied me. I was glad I'd discovered Joao's true self before drifting into marriage with him. He could not cope with my depression, my delusions, with my physical revulsion for him.
"Come to me," said The Beast again and again. "He does not want you. I do. I shall make you a queen. I shall worship you like men worship a goddess! You will never die!"
"I believe in love," I said. "You are not love."
"There are many kinds of love," said The Beast.
Joao came to me a week later. I had missed him. I let him touch me. Where his touch fell I discovered blisters.
"How did you get those?" he asked, alarmed.
"I don't know," I said.
"But you must remember, so many of them!"
"Don't touch me!" I said, bursting into a flood of tears. I belong to The Beast!"
"You're crazy!" he left the room. The Beast was looking at me with new eyes. The leer was imperceptible now.
"Oh what do I do now? My love...it's gone. I frightened it away," I said to The Beast.
"You belong to me," he said softly.
I heard Joao's footsteps approaching my door. He stood there holding a bouquet of red roses. I asked myself ‑ Will you offer your throat to the Wolf with the Red Roses?
"I knew you'd come back!" I cried. But he seemed not to hear me. Or see me. He rushed through the rooms calling my name.
"Is this a game or what?" he asked, returning to my room. Then he looked at the wall and dropped the red roses. I saw the fright on his face, the shock, the remorse. He sat down on my bed and wept like a little boy. He lifted his tear‑stained face and stared at The Beast . Then he looked again at me and cried ‑ "Nadine, Nadine, you can't be just a face on the wall!"
Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace
February 18, 1992
Short Story Course, Lesson 8
Thank you for your letter of January 23 and for sending FACES ON THE WALL for Lesson 8.
There is an excellent Creative Writing Course run by Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. Graduates of this include writers such as the Booker Prize winner Ishiguro and other prestigious names. It is far from easy to get accepted on to the Course, but you might be interested in having a try.
It will be very exciting when your book is published and certainly publication will help to establish you as a writer.
FACES ON THE WALL is a disturbing and highly atmospheric story, I’m not sure that I’m completely clear what is going on; like Jao, one thinks that Nadine must have lost her reason, but the conclusion shows that something even more sinister has happened. You use language beautifully and there is a lovely hypnotic quality to the writing here. As for markets. I can’t say for sure. Horror is quite variable and would think this to be a bit too subtle for popular horror.
Just recently there have emerged several new outlets, both in the UK and the US, which are the brainchildren of businessmen rather than traditional publishers. The aim is to produce short books in a selection of genres each month for sale in places like supermarkets, garages and so on rather than the old style book stores. Both in the US and here there is at least one entrepreneur of this kind who includes horror amongst the planned genres. As far as the American one is concerned I feel pretty sure that a lurid kind of horror is what is wanted. I have read one of the fantasy genre – they are 20,000 words, these short and very small, shirt-pocket –sized novels – and that seems to me fairly preposterous, the stock fare of dozen s of fantasies.
Incidentally, I met a fantasy author last week, a writer of optimistic fantasies rather than of the darker kind which flood the market. He has a strong religious faith and is published by a religious publisher. So far he hasn’t made very much money, but it does look as if he might be on the brink of a breakthrough.
These new ventures which I have mentioned need time to establish themselves and I don’t think it is worth my giving you addresses just at the moment, particularly as a friend who wrote a historical romance for one of them has received her published books but as yet no payment. When she is paid I shall feel happier about suggesting to people that they try here.
Keep on pushing away at it, and of course, keep on writing. It’s persistence which you are going to need now and it could well pay off. In writing terms you are really quite young and this is another factor in your favour!
Hilary Johnson, M.A. Ph. D.