It has been several years ago now that I workshopped what I was then referring to as a “story” called “Barry Gibb is the Cutest Bee Gee” at the Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop at Hollins University. I had whipped it out quite fast and at the last minute, as we are sometimes apt to do. But my fellow workshop attendees seemed to like it a lot. One by one, people around the table began commenting on what they liked about the story. Naturally, I was thrilled, but the person I most hoped would like it was the brilliant writer and our workshop instructor Pinckney Benedict. And maybe you can tell already where this is going because any story worth telling or reading about has got to have conflict. Pinckney agreed with the others, to a point. Yes, the piece had a wonderful voice. Yes, the situation in the piece was interesting and engaging. Yes, the dialogue was authentic and snappy. And so on.
“But,” he said. And this is where my ears were dialing in. “But… this is more of a vignette, really, than a full-blown short story.”
In those earlier days, I was a little heartbroken when I got even a mildly negative response, especially from one of my heroes, and PB was and is still my all-time favorite short story writer. He’s a genius. What’s more, even though he’d taken the sting out of his response, because he’s a sensitive and wonderful human being, I understood that what he was saying was much more serious than just a little problem with my story. Sometimes we hear what we want to hear, that the problems will be a quick and easy fix. That’s not at all what Pinckney was saying. Very succinctly, in just one sentence, he was saying that my story was not a story at all.
It took me years to fully understand that one sentence. Let me see if I can save you a little time.
Story vs. Vignette
What you’ve read up to here is not a short story; would you agree? I’ve just related an anecdote about an experience I had as a newish writer to make a point, which I hope will illustrate some of what I’m about to convey in this essay. It’s an anecdote, not a short story. Good.
Soon after that workshop experience Pinckney began writing a series of brilliant essays on craft on his Myspace page. (Yes, it’s been a while.) One of the essays detailed the differences between a full-blown short story and what he refers to as a vignette. A vignette, I came to understand from his explanation, looks like a story, but it’s only a cleverly disguised anecdote. It’s cleverly disguised because it may have lots of wonderful scenes, rich with sensual detail, dialogue, and even scads and scads of action and conflict. The characters in a vignette may seem so real to us, complicated in all the ways that human beings are complicated. There may be an engaging narrative voice. In a nutshell, everything may appear to be working in a vignette and yet there’s something missing. And the something that’s missing is the most essential part of a short story. Meaning.
Pinckney, in his essay, referred to what he calls the Apocalyptic Arc, whereby a story turns at some point and offers a revelation, or “lifts away the veil,” I think is how he phrased it.
I could almost wrap my head around what he was saying. I could feel it in my bones. But it didn’t really open up and bloom fully in my mind until I came across Flannery O’Connor’s book of essays Mystery and Manners. Now, if you’ve read this book, you know it’s written in the same queer bird talk that Pinckney speaks in, and I suppose that’s because geniuses like Flannery O’Connor and Pinckney Benedict are some other celestial beings from distant planets deep in the galaxy somewhere. I have to stop and rewind what they’ve said, play it over again, and stop. Listen. Jot down a note, and so on before I can piece together what they have both been telling me now for years.
Here’s Flannery O’Connor’s definition of a story:
A story is a complete dramatic action – and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is meaning that derives from the whole presented experience.” ~ Flannery O’Connor
Meaning, yes, but how? What is meaning, and how do we work it into our stories?
I’m going to write another post that goes into more detail about meaning because it is just that important. It is the most essential thing we do as writers. If all we are doing is presenting interesting characters doing lots of interesting things without any significant meaning that can be extrapolated, then we are missing the mark completely.
For now, let me give you more from the great story-master’s bible on writing, Mystery and Manners:
“I prefer to talk about meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story,” O’Connor writes. “People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if they can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.
When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”
She goes on:
“The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible. He has only a short space to do it in and he can’t do it by statement. He has to do it by showing, not by saying, and by showing the concrete–so that his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.”
Then she goes on to talk about how meaning comes about as an accumulation of detail, which I’ll get into in another post later. For now, I want to draw your attention to this: ACTION reveals mystery.
Yes, you say, but didn’t your story have plenty of action and didn’t Pinckney still call it a vignette? Good; very astute of you. Yes, indeed; it did have action but no meaning. Bear with me while shift gears a little.
John Gardner defines a story this way: “Everything you write is the same: two worlds collide; a love story.”
To understand meaning, we have to understand action because action is not simply the stringing together of events. No, no. In order for action to finally arrive at meaning, there must be, first of all, conflict, something that tests our characters’ mettle and ultimately presents them with an opportunity for change. Change, ah. Pay attention to the way that Janet Burroway defines story:
“A character is someone capable of change. Story is the process of that change. The change may be from alive to dead, from ugly to beautiful, from ignorant to wise, callous to compassionate, from certain to uncertain or vice versa. But the change occurs because the character confronts a situation that will challenge her/his assumptions and somehow shake up the easy beliefs … [T]he story will always end in an altered state in at least the character whose POV we share. Usually the story will result in greater wisdom, compassion, or understanding—though it can end in diminishment or narrowing. As readers, however, we will always, if the story succeeds, have our capacity for empathy enlarged by having lived in the character’s skin for the duration. Every story, in this way, is a love story.”
Now let’s bring this all together.
A story is much more nuanced than a simple anecdote. A story offers insights into the human condition by allowing readers to vicariously experience along with a character some problem that brings him to a moment of internal crisis. There may also be external crisis, but it is the internal that matters ultimately in bringing about an opportunity for our character to either choose to or refuse to change. This change, even if our character refuses to act upon it, will nevertheless not be lost on those of us who read the story. We will be changed because we will have be shown something that illustrates the mystery of existence. We may not be able to neatly paraphrase just what this something is, but we will feel as if we’ve learned something new, some elusive mystery, about what it means to be human. We will feel as if some meaning has been revealed to us. All of this can only come about in a short story when action is presented in such a way that the world which existed before in the story is no longer the same. Something changes, even if the character does not. From action to change to meaning.
More on meaning later.
Let me know if this helps with your understanding of what a story is and how a story works.