I've been spontaneously writing short (or very short) stories lately. Dunno where they come from. I think it's time I start on my next book? Is that what my brain is telling me? Anyway. Rereading them reminded me of something I have heard for the first time at Chuck Palahniuk's reading several years ago. He read a couple of his short stories, and someone in the audience asked what every story needs. If there are any rules, any elements that make for a great short story. I was just beginning to write back then, awestruck by the brilliance of Fight Club. I leaned forward with bated breath, ready to record every precious word, heaving a sigh, chocking on my own impatience. This is what Chuck said.
EVERY STORY NEEDS:
- A clock.
- A birth.
- A death.
- 3 elements that repeat (starting from page 1).
- Make reader do 4 things: feel smarter than you, laugh, cry, be sick.
He also said that this applies to novels too, and that every story, regardless of its length, should be written for therapy and should be read out loud. Because, not every story will be published. Then, if you wrote it for therapy, you have enjoyed yourself and haven't lost anything.
I jotted it all down and was religiously following these rules. (For a while, I must add.) (I must also add, I'm not really following them anymore.) (I must furthermore add, I will explain why later.) (Aren't you annoyed at all these sentences in parenthesis?) (Okay, just one more, so I can have my fill.)
But back to the topic.
Here is what I thought these things meant. The things that Chuck Palahniuk mentioned. In case you have forgotten what we're talking about.
The clock means you set up timing right from the start, something like "in 9 weeks everything will explode due to a giant crayfish invading the skies of this intergalactic beehive." Then someone has to be born, a creature with protuberant prominent eyes, a clone of said crayfish. Then someone has to die, squashed and gutted and baked like a fat bream stuffed with buttery kasha. For 3 elements you can pick some odd things to include, like the color "crimson" to describe anything that precedes the appearance of the damned boiled crayfish and its awful eyes. Or whatever strikes your ocular fancy. So, in SIREN SUICIDES the 3 elements were water (obviously), suicide (obviously), and singing (obviously). 4 things to make reader do...I did over-explain, though, so I think I failed at making reader feel smarter than me. Less is more!
I have no clue if I have followed the rules correctly. I did try to make people laugh and cry, but I think I mostly made them feel sick. I dunno. Incidentally, in ROSEHEAD the 3 elements were roses (duh), flesh eating things (yuck), talking things (talking dog, talking heads, mute boy who starts to talk).
Then I wrote IRKADURA.
And then I got it.
I got it!
I got what Chuck Palahniuk really meant!!! (I think.)
- Number one, he was probably inundated with these questions for so many years, he simply came up with some plausible answer.
- Number two, if you let yourself write naturally, without fear, THOSE THINGS WILL HAPPEN ON THEIR OWN. In short stories I recently wrote, like in this one, inspired by Chekhov, I made you smile (I know, you told me), I didn't really make you cry, but I sorta made you sad (her dad died!), oh, and, well, I did mention death twice. Dad died. Ilka liked to kill leeches. Lovely. I have 3 elements too. Weak tea like orphan's piss (orphan...Ilka...get it?). River. Azuline (color). There you go. I did make you a little sick, though, with the mention of piss and killing leeches, right? And I hope I made you feel smarter than me by filling in the details, like, how did their house look? How old was Ilka? You got it yourself and you felt smart. Right?
So what is this whole thing about? There "rules"? What does it tell you?
IT TELLS YOU THAT WE FUCKING CARE ABOUT BEING BORN, DYING, LAUGHING, CRYING, FEELING LIKE WE KNOW SHIT AND FEELING UTTERLY DISGUSTED WHILE TIMED, BECAUSE OUR LIVES GET CLOSER TO THE END EVERY FUCKING SECOND.
If you let yourself feel everything you feel while you write, it will happen on its own!
Another thing Chuck meant, I think...I hope I'm right...I think by 3 elements he meant to keep your writing simple. Only mention a few elements that can stay in your reader's memory. Not more. You don't need to over-explain! Which leads me to...
...this is the same thing that Chekhov said.
I'm reading his short stories right now, in English, for the first time. And the picture you see above spells out his own 6 rules for every short story:
- Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature.
- Total objectivity.
- Truthful descriptions of persons and objects.
- Extreme brevity.
- Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype.
If you think about this, Chekhov states the same things. Absence of bla-bla-bla verbiage and objectivity and brevity all point to making readers feel smarter than you. They are not dummies, get it? Get it?? The rest says, pretty much, make readers care. And how do you make readers care? Kill your characters. (Awww, he died!) Have someone or something born. (Awww, how cute!) Have the timer ticking. (Shit! They will all die!) And so on. Simply state what you observe, without writer's commentary. Spare your readers. They will fill in their own commentary. They read newsletters for commentary, not novels.
Try this exercise.
Right now, give yourself 30 minutes and write a short story about something you're thinking of this very moment. It can be anything. For me yesterday it was annoying crows that kept cawing and wouldn't let me nap. Here is that short story. For you it could be...your dog? Your socks? Your luxuriously impolite aunt? Your leaking roof? Whatever it is, write it like you're doing a quick drawing, a sketch of your emotions, with only a few dabs of color (3 elements). Don't explain. Simply write out how it feels. Share results below. Or email me. I might even publish the best one (or several) on my blog. Just to illustrate it for everyone.