11 January 2019

Stick to the Path? Wander A Little? (On short stories, subplots, points of view, and more...)

In a little over a week, the new semester begins at George Mason University, and I’ll be leading an Advanced Fiction Workshop for the first time—emphasis on Advanced. I’ve taught Intro to Creative Writing in years past, and more often now I’m teaching the standard Fiction Workshop—each of those courses focused on building the skills and honing the tools for students beginning to write short stories: crafting character, shaping scenes, navigating a plot through conflict, climax, and resolution. Stepping stones, each course. Walk before you run, as a friend of mine recently told me.

So how to put the Advanced into the Advanced Workshop? beyond simply admitting students who are already bringing as much skill as enthusiasm to their work?

Back over the holidays—just before Christmas, then just after the new year—a couple of questions online got me thinking about specific aspects of short story writing, how I teach students to write them, and how I write them myself. First, Amy Denton posted a question on the Sisters in Crime Guppies message board: “Depending on the length, is there enough room in a short story for a subplot?” Responses ranged widely, and the discussion was extensive, but with no clear consensus.

Then, reviewing a couple of short stories from a recent issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Catherine Dilts wrote, “A rule beginning writers encounter is that multiple points of view can't be used effectively in short stories…. How does telling a tale through more than one narrator work?” A story by fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti, “A Bad Day for Algebra Tests,” offered Dilts one example of how well that approach can succeed.

Another of our SleuthSayers family—Barb Goffman, a master of the short story herself—has a great piece of advice for writers: namely that the short story is about “one thing.” (I’ve heard other writers repeat her words and I've repeated them myself down the line.) And our good friend and former SleuthSayer B.K. Stevens and I were both big fans of Poe’s ideas about the “single effect” in the short story, that everything in a tale should be focused toward one goal, toward having one effect on the reader: "In the whole composition," Poe wrote, "there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

When I’ve taught workshops on short story writing, I often put Poe’s words and Barb’s on back-to-back PowerPoint slides, emphasizing the resonance between the two points. (Both authors are in good company!) And several assignments in my classes are geared toward these ends. I have students write a six-sentence story as a first day exercise, for example. When they turn in their full drafts, class discussion begins with charting out the escalation of rising conflicts (Freytag’s Triangle, not to be too academic!) and ferreting out anything that doesn’t fit. And as we move toward revision, I have them reduce those drafts down to three sentences (three sentences of three words each!) to crystallize their understanding of the story’s purpose and arc.

Focus on the “one thing” is always the goal. Efficiency along the way, that’s key. “A short story is about subtraction,” I tell them. “Cut away anything that doesn’t belong.”

And yet…

Many of the stories that have stuck with me most vividly over the years are those that maintain that focus on “one thing” and yet also stretch further beyond it too: multiple points of view, intricate time shifts, a braiding together of several other elements in addition to whatever the central plotline might be. Here’s a sample of some favorites just off the top of my head:

  • “All Through the House” by Christophe Coake, with multiple points of view and a reverse chronology
  • “Ibrahim’s Eyes” by David Dean (one more SleuthSayer!), balancing two time frames with storylines that each inform the other
  • “The Babysitter” by Robert Coover, a wild story in so many ways, veering off into fantasies, desires, and what-ifs while still circling back to what actually happened (I think)
  • “Billy Goats” by Jill McCorkle, which is more like an essay at times, drifting and contemplative—in fact, I’ve passed it off as nonfiction in another of my classes
  • How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” by Joyce Carol Oates (full title of that one is “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House Of Correction and Began My Life Over Again—Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; a Revelation of the Meaning of Life; a Happy Ending” so you can see how plot and structure might be going in several directions)

(All of these are about crimes—though some of them would more likely be classified mysteries than others. (Don’t make me bring up that “L” word.)) 

Even looking at my own fiction, I find that I’ve often tried to push some boundaries. My story “The Care and Feeding of Houseplants,” for example, alternates three different points of view, three characters bringing their own pasts and problems to bear on a single dinner party—with a couple of secrets hidden from the others, of course. Another recent story, “English 398: Fiction Workshop”—one I’ve talked about on SleuthSayers before—layers several kinds of storytelling, centered around a university-level writing workshop, with a variety of voices and tones in the mix. (The full title of the story makes a small nod toward Oates in fact: “English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More.”) And a story I just finished revising earlier this week, “Loose Strands,” also has three narrators, an older man and two middle school boys, their stories coming together around a schoolyard fight, colliding, combining, and ultimately (at least I’m aiming for this) inseparable.

As I commented in the discussion forum in response to Amy Denton’s question: “I often try to think about how the characters involved each have their own storyline—the storylines of their lives—and how the interactions between characters are the intersections of those storylines. And I challenge myself to try to navigate a couple of those storylines as their own interweaving narrative arcs, each with its own resolution, where somehow the end of the story ties up each thread.”  
Maybe the idea of multiple points of view and subplots collapse together in several ways, thinking again of Catherine Dilts’ review of Rob’s story and of another, “Manitoba Postmortem” by S. L. Franklin. And in my workshops at Mason, I’ve used Madison Smartt Bell’s terrific book, Narrative Design, to explore modular storytelling, experimenting with shifts in chronology and points of view, layering several strands of story together. Some students catch on quickly, love the opportunities provided by this kind of storytelling. (But as beginning writers, it’s important—as I stressed—for them to build a firm foundation first in storytelling elements, techniques, and more straightforward structures. Walk those stepping stones first.) 

So in thinking about the discussion Amy’s question sparked and the review Catherine wrote and my teaching and my writing, I find myself pulled in a couple of different directions: committed to Barb’s (and Poe’s!) ideas about the short story, always striving to stick as close to the core armature of a story as I can, but also occasionally testing those boundaries, pushing them to see what happens.

So… some questions for readers here and for my SleuthSayer buddies as well: How would you answer the questions above about subplots and multiple points of view? How closely do yourself stick to the idea of the single-effect in the short story—to the story being about one thing? How do you balance those demands of the form with interests or ambitions in other directions?

As for my advanced fiction workshop ahead… I’m still going to keep the students concentrating on the “one thing” that’s the core of their stories—focus and efficiency always, and credit again to Barb. But as much as a workshop should be about learning the rules and following best practices, it should equally be a place to take some risks and have some fun. And so I also want them to play with structure and storytelling, to stretch their talents wherever they want, and to see where it takes them.

Any suggestions for the course—those are welcome too!


  1. I suspect many beginning writers—and I was certainly among them way back when—believe the plot is the "one thing" a story is about, completely missing the possibility (or probability) that the plot is simply the framework. For example, a story about the planning, execution, and aftermath of a robbery committed by a father and son might make for a pretty good bit of crime fiction, but the "one thing" hidden beneath it all might be a story about the evolving relationship between the father and son as they've grown older.

    I've never taken an advanced fiction writing class, but the lesson I did not learn (and wish I had) in the pair of lower-level courses I attended many years ago is the intersection between art and commerce. One can choose to put art above all else, and may never be published. One can choose to be strictly commercial, and may be viewed as a hack. For many of us, though, there's a balancing act. We deal regularly with constraints on our art if we want to see it published—length, POV, subject matter, level of violence, level of sexual detail, balance of dialog vs. description, flowery language vs. terse language, genre expectations, writing to a theme, writing to a deadline, and on and on. I think a beginning writer is well served to understand the choices they will have to make and not be caught by surprise when they begin the path to publication.

  2. Hi, Michael --
    Thanks for the comment here—first comment and such a good one! I agree on your point about the "one thing" here, that it might not be the thing that's right before your eyes but something else that holds it all together. Plot isn't all, even as it does provide the framework for everything else that you hang on it, attach to it. I always like the idea of something else that helps hold it all together.

    And thanks for the advice on the fiction workshop. At the end of last semester's regular workshop, we talked a little bit about the business of writing, but I do think I should add more into the advanced workshop--maybe having everyone investigate some possible publication venues for their stories (whether suspense or fantasy or literary or whatever) and think critically about what their story might need, how they would pitch it there. Thanks for that suggestion--already prompting me toward an assignment!

  3. Heck, Art, maybe make one of the assignments to actually submit something. They might not receive a response by the end of the semester, but give them points if they bcc you on the submission email or if they bring you a printout of the submission acknowledgement from a publication (like AHMM and EQMM) that uses an online submission form.

    Which, I suppose, means a lesson on writing cover letters...

  4. I started giving advice that writing a short story is about one thing after I had a few authors come to me looking for help. One had to write her first short story and she was overwhelmed and nervous. Others had kept trying to write and they weren't having any success. Either they couldn't finish or they did finish but their stories weren't getting published anywhere. Ultimately the problem they all were having was one of focus. They were trying to do too many things in too little space, and their stories weren't working properly as a result. When I got them to realize that they should stop trying to be fancy, no subplots, no romance, just focus on one thing, one tight tale, their stories started to work and they started to sell. That is the beauty of the "just one thing" approach to writing a short story. Of course once you master the craft you can try to do more, but as Art said, the path to success involves learning to walk before trying to run or fly.

  5. Good stuff, Art. Lots of good info here. And some great-sounding story suggestions.

  6. Hey again, Michael — yep, should've added that as well. I'm thinking of having them have to submit their story and then doing the research to find two or three possible publication venues, and support why they'd be good fits and how their stories meet all the requirements, etc. Absolutely.

  7. Thanks, Barb — and yep, couldn't agree more. And I think it's true at both ends of the spectrum. Beginning writers need a way to focus their story (one of the reasons why I do so many exercises on that kind of focusing in our early courses). But even for seasoned novelists trying their hand at the short story... It's such a different animal from the novel, and their instincts are often so different that they can't get the focus you're talking about either. One of my own teachers in grad school has published 20-plus novels but says she's never written a satisfactory short story--I anticipate for that very reason.

    And thanks again for the pre-read on the post here and for letting me quote you in it! (And quote you in workshops and classes too, as I said....) :-)

  8. Art, I've done the "one thing" story (Drifts most notably - which made the cover of AHMM), but to be honest, I almost always am running two plots through the story, (1) because humans sidetrack all the time (2) they make for great red herrings and (3) sometimes they converge into the "one thing". But sometimes not. Sometimes it simply explains a quirk about someone integral to the story, that otherwise would be inexplicable.

  9. Excellent comments and helpful information! I prefer sticking to Poe's advice that a short story should move to creating the single effect--plot, story, etc. But this is for short work, not longer stories or novellas. In any case, with short stories, the writer can experiment.

  10. Art, first of all, thanks so much for pointing out Catherine's review which I had somehow missed. Made my whole day.

    I think your essay pretty much nails it. I am a big believer in the "single effect." You can roam all over the universe in a short story, changing time frame, place, and POV, but it all has to aim at creating one effect on the reader. Which, of course, means, the writer needs a very clear idea of what he is trying to accomplish.

    About your idea of six sentences reduced to three. Our own John Floyd wrote something about outlining I thought was brilliant. Summarize your book in one sentence. Then expand it to a paragraph. Keep expanding to the desired outline length. Me: If you can't summarize your story in one sentence, you haven't figured out what it is about and you won't get that single effect.

    I must say that when someone asks whether a story can do this or that I am reminded of one of my all-time favorite moments at a Bouchercon. If I remember correctly, there was a panel on short stories and someone asked: "How many scenes should a short story have?" Alan Orloff replied: "Four."

  11. Thanks, Paul, Eve, Jacqueline, and Rob --
    Appreciate the perspectives here--and Rob, I think I was at that same panel where Alan made that joke!

    Glad to hear y'all are on the same page so to speak in terms of how you can both aim for that single effect and yet still go in some different directions, layering things but still keeping the main focus in mind. It's a balancing act always!

    And Rob, glad that I was able to point you toward Catherine's post too!

  12. Laddie, it's great to see ye back again! And with such a fine tutorial, Art! (Is it too late to wish Happy New Year?)

  13. You quote me and Poe? Did I tell you I'm flattered?

  14. Thanks, Leigh! And you did, Barb, yes!

  15. OK, here's my thought, as a short story writer who has pushed a lot of boundaries (2nd person present tense is my favorite "out there" story): As with any form of art--writing, painting, music, you have to learn the rules, the basics. Once you master those, you can stretch them, push them, even violate them. As long as you KNOW you're doing it and what the basics are. I hope that makes sense.

    I once wrote a story with 5 (or maybe 6?) POVs (PsOV?) and sent it out. I received a crit with a good suggestion on how to eliminate one or 2 of them, but it was accepted by Mysterical-E before I could change it. It won first place in their Death at a Writer's Convention contest. Whatever works!

  16. Art, is a short story really a different animal from a novel? I'm not so sure. I think it depends on the writer. Besides what everybody else has said about plot and focus—and let's not forget pace, another great way to think about cutting out every unnecessary word, as I've learned editing myself and others—I love to read and equally love to write stories about characters who come to life and bristle with emotion and humor; dialogue that's brimming with voice, whether it's eloquent or sparkling or cynical or weary; authentic relationships, characters who think and feel and grow and change. That's why it occurred to me recently (before reading your post!) that my short story (or one I read and love) tends to be a little novel. That may also be why I've had trouble placing certain stories in markets looking for a perfect puzzle. I don't care about a perfect puzzle if the characters don't breathe. (Those passionate vampires Charlaine Harris used to write excepted, of course.)

  17. Hi, Art and everyone.

    I think "one thing" is good advice for shorter stories, but then there is no set length for short stories in general. It can vary from one sentence to 20,000 words. The more words, the more room there is for subplots, multiple viewpoints, what have you.

    Also, having these extra features doesn't mean you have to stray from the "one thing" principle. Each feature of the story can contribute toward the single effect you want to achieve.

    I'm reminded of Steve Hockensmith's May/June 2018 EQMM story, "Where the Strange Ones Go", which includes several one-paragraph profiles from the viewpoints of video dating service patrons. They collectively establish the dismal, predatory atmosphere of the workplace the protagonist enters.

    As someone who tends to write on the short side, an advanced workshop could show how to use more words to enrich stories, not merely pad them. For what kinds of ideas might more words be put to good use? Good luck.

  18. Interesting to read your perspective and those of the commenters, Art. As you know, I also teach — but not English and not writing and not fiction writing and not short-story writing. I wouldn’t know where to begin. People ask me about my “process,” and I have no idea how to respond. Was it Brautigan who wrote something like “it steam engines when it comes steam-engining time”? That‘s my process: I story-tell when it comes story-telling time. Beyond that, I dunno....

  19. Hi, Kaye, Liz, Gerald, and Josh --
    Sorry to have been slow on responding! We were out of town for the weekend--and out of town an extra day because of snow. Catching up now that we're back.

    Good points here, and I agree with Gerald that the size of a story can make all the difference in the way we approach these questions and classifications. And certainly I think short stories can succeed in capturing much of the scope of a novel (I always think of Alice Munro's stories for example) but I do think the approach may be different. I just read Tana French's The Secret Place, which I loved, and the characters and conflicts were so nicely crafted; the main storyline covered only a single day (alternating chapters stretched over a longer period of time)... but this was 450 pages. Writing about a single day in a short story.... well, you'd craft that differently, obviously, even if you were aiming for rich characters, sharp dialogue, etc. So maybe great dialogue, yes, but fewer pages of it? And maybe that dialogue has to be even a little crisper in a short story, do its work more efficiently? A challenge, for sure, to distill those kinds of qualities for the short story form. But as Kaye said, once you've gotten a handle on the rules and mastered some of the basics, the sky's the limit!

    And Gerald, thanks for the recommendation of that Steve Hockensmith story; I haven't read but need to look it up!

  20. Hello Art (and everyone else),

    My apologies if I am inappropriatly posting (of topic), but I am looking for help in trying to identify and locate an old Alfred Hitchcock story, one that I remember reading back when I was a kid in the 70's.

    Specifically, I am trying to figure out which volume of Alfred Hitchcock's collections of short stories contains a short story about two cops having breakfast early morning at a diner.

    It started as a game between them, but they started to build a criminal case against another patron at the breakfast diner who was overheard saying something like "you owe me extra, I had to walk an 3 miles in the rain". They wondered why someone would say that, and stared speculating on the details, which after breakfast one of the cops decided to investigate and discovered a murder.

    I remember reading the story back in the 70's as a kid. I have looked thru a few old Hitchcock books, but still can't seem to find it. Does anyone happen to know where to look for this story?

    Thanks in advance for any information.

  21. Hi Sam,

    I'll bring this to the attention of others. You might contact AHMM directly, but you might have more luck with on-line collectors who've catalogued virtually everything they've published. Let us know how you fare.

  22. Sam, I think you have your source a little wrong. You seem to be describing "The Nine Mile Walk" by Harry Kemelman. It involves two college professors, one of whom has just become a law enforcement official of some kind. The "detective" character was Professor Nicky Welt. The overheard phrase is "A nine mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain." I don't know of it ever appearing in a Hitchcock collection, but it appeared in Ellery Queen MM and is the title story of a collection of Kemelman stories about those characters. I'm sure a library or ABE can track it down for you. Great story, and launched Kemelman's career.

  23. Thanks Rob-- such a great story! Glad you were able to help here.


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