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What I Learned After Reading 100 Short Stories: Part 2
I’ve read about 100 short stories in the last few months. What have I learned from this? This is part 2.
Part 1 is here:
Play by Play vs Summarized Description
A common writing adage is “show, don’t tell.” Like most writing advice, this advice is perceived as having come from the gods in millennia past; it is never questioned. Few can say why this practice is valuable. They explain via statements like, “the sentence will be more effective.”
We can improve the state of things a little today:
The reason “show, don’t tell” is effective is because it puts the reader into virtual reality mode and helps them to escape into the piece. You are submerging them in imagined sensory experience and triggering the part of their brains responsible for simulation; if you do a good job, you sort of pleasantly hypnotize them until they run out of pages to read.
Alan Moore once discussed something called “mirror” neurons which he said might cause this effect, and claims that language is a technology that is utterly linked to this simulation system.
By the way, here’s an article that builds on this idea a little bit:
When “show, don’t tell” is taken to an extreme, you end up with the popular mode of writing I call “play by play” — he walked to the desk, sat down, leaned forward and rested his elbow on the surface, then let his head fall into his hand. It is the moment to moment description of what is happening.
Most bestsellers today seem to use this mode of writing.
The thing is, though… there is more than one way to “hypnotize” a reader. Great writers for millennia have been achieving the same effect without using play-by-play descriptions of what a character’s senses are picking up. For example, by following a train of thoughts or chain of ideas.
It is just harder to do.
The play-by-play mode of writing is a fairly reliable, good way to write, but let’s please stop criticizing everybody who does not obey the tenet.
Some remarkable stories that often choose to tell instead of showing: Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Stephen King’s Jerusalem’s Lot, Lovecraft’s <almost everything>, Heinlein’s various discussions in his stories about science or philosophy (usually told via conversation mind you, which is very much a case of ‘tell’), Joyce Carol Oates characters having internal monologues, every mystery story where a killer describes his plot to the detective at the end… this is just off the top of my head.
In other words: summarized, non-sensual description can be great.
Non-play-by-play description as a mode of storytelling also has one great advantage over play-by-play: it is very concise. Because of this, you can tell a larger story than you otherwise could, and we see this mode pop up all the time in short fiction. Depending on the story you want to tell, the play-by-play version might take 200–300 pages, but with a bit of exposition, you can potentially tell the same story in 40–60 pages.
A story told via exposition is fundamentally different from one told in play-by-play mode. The play-by-play story often leads to a night on your couch of simulated moment-to-moment experience. The exposition mode zooms out, sometimes in space and time, and invites a different part of your brain to engage. It invites more activity from the analytical part of your brain. It invites your imagination to step up a little more, filling in gaps — when done intentionally and skillfully, this can be compelling. And when that thing is hard to imagine, that can be effective too — see Lovecraft for somebody who made great intentional use of this.
Simple & Direct vs Flowery Language
Writers tell you to use concise language that is straight to the point, and again, nobody challenges this idea. It was however not considered an ideal until relatively recently, historically speaking.
If you rewind to stories written 100–150 years ago, the default approach to writing a sentence was to focus heavily on rhythm and pleasant phrasing.
Many of these stories are incredibly striking.
Alan Moore distinguishes these stories via the terms “attic” vs “asiatic.”
What I think happened was this: the greatest writers have usually used relatively wordy, flowery styles, and they did a remarkable job of it; millions of writers sought to imitate their style, and we ended up with a century or two of relatively flowery language. It’s often very lovely! However, this sort of writing is hard to do. If you mess it up, you end up with a work that feels “wordy,” ie, burdensome to read. It is also easy to mess up.
Direct, simple sentences are also great, but their chief advantage is this: if you mess it up, the reader will suffer less than if the same sentences were flowery.
They will still suffer, however.
Both styles are fantastic.
A pretentious book is a book that tried to be deep, but ended up failing to impress the reader. The reader then snubs the book, saying it’s pretentious drivel, and that the author should get his or her head out of their rears.
The fear of being called pretentious I think is strong in today’s writers. But there is nothing wrong with these failed books… indeed, they are necessary. If writers don’t feel safe writing these hated “pretentious” books, they will shy away from addressing deep topics. If writers DO feel safe writing about these deep topics, then we will end up with piles and piles of failures that will annoy readers — and a few absolute gems.
These failed stories come across as pretentious in the way that some young people, when being mannered, appear fake; they lack the refinement at this stage of their lives for the behaviour to appear natural and authentic. It isn’t yet fully internalized yet. “Pretentious” stories feel self-congratulatory (a common phrase used by reviewers to slam ambitious works) only because the author was too overwhelmed by the work to keep that sense from being detectable.
A well-written simple book might be ten times as pretentious as a failed “deep” book, but that pretension is just hidden and the reader never knows. See also: certain superb actors.
Writing competently about deep, emotional subjects is extremely difficult. Hardly any people can do it. But books would be better if more people tried, even though most will fail.
(Speaking for myself, I fall into the “scared of being called pretentious” camp, but I’m trying to branch out)
Early 20th Century Racism & Sexism
When we criticize people for being racist or sexist today, we are willing to crucify somebody on Twitter for forgetting to use a pronoun or for not being the right skin colour to tell a certain type of well-meaning story.
100 years ago, racism was different.
H. G. Wells would write a nasty story about how lovely it was to work with black people because of how stupid and uncurious they were, and would then describe the shapes of their skulls and how their brains are backwards in their heads compared to white people’s. Ugh.
Is that not monstrous?
Almost all the early 20th century short stories I’ve stumbled upon in the past six months have racist, colonialist, or sexist themes, and they are front and centre.
These stories are horrible. It will not merely have a woman who is a stereotype — she will be the ruin of her husband’s life, and he will succeed heroically once he can escape her nagging. They do not merely contain characters who are enjoying their stay in British India — they will be about men who become cursed for the mistake of meeting a Hindu man and failing to go to a church afterwards to cleanse themselves. Ugh.
I’m afraid to open an old short story collection because of it.
Thankfully, not many people write like that any more.
Where Horror and Magic Came From
100–250 years ago, magic came from the parts of the world you weren't very knowledgeable about. We knew for a fact that magic isn’t here — but we also suspect it is somewhere. Therefore, it must be over there. And sometimes, over there might be only a few miles away, since the world was so disconnected back then. It might be as close as the strange woman’s house at the edge of town, or in the nearby forest that you never go into.
Now, with almost every inch of the Earth mapped out with satellites, and connected via the internet, there is no longer any such thing as “over there.” The world is known to us to the degree that we spend the effort to look. Thus, magical stories today don’t rely on things being far away. They either suggest that magic used to be here, but we lost it (also common when referring to feats of the Roman Empire); or that it is new (from aliens or other dimensions); or that the entire world is magical (magical realism). Occasionally, we get conspiracies too, where the magic beings are in hiding, like Twilight or Discovery of Witches.
There isn’t room for much plot in a short story. If a short story does have a substantial plot, it takes up a great deal of room in that story, and leaves little room for other matters.
While most short stories do have a plot, many of my favourites more or less do not have a significant plot at all. Instead, they just pick a scene or a time or a situation to anchor the story tidily, and then go on to say whatever they mean to say. Bret Easton Ellis and Salinger do great jobs of this.
The short stories with the best plots tend to be the longest ones, often entering novelette territory. Not always though — some quite short stories have good plots as well.
The Need to Read More Stories?
Suppose a story achieves its singular effect. Suppose the story is good and it stays with you for a while.
Then, when you read something new, and that new story has a lasting effect on you, what happens? The effects might blend a little, but chances are the first will be, at minimum, weakened.
So: if you read something remarkable that leaves a mark on you — should you read something new afterwards?
I have been forcing myself to, and I find the experience very jarring. One effect after another, pulling me left and right, and muddying the nice effects of the earlier stories.
Now that my 2-stories-per-day project is done with, it feels pleasant to be able to just let my mind just sit on what it has just been through.
The first two of J. D. Salinger’s “Nine Stories” collection have left a strong effect on me, and I’d rather not pave over that with the third. So, I haven’t read the third after reading the first two. I will one day, but I don’t need to. I’m still under the spell of the first two. It would be a destructive waste to plough forwards, wouldn’t it?
In a sense then, if certain stories are read to enjoy the effects they have on you, then why read more if you are already experiencing the effect you are chasing?
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