Patrick Ryan’s work has been published in Granta, Tin House, Crazyhorse, and One Story, and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories. He’s most recently the author of the short story collection The Dream Life of Astronauts. Patrick joins signature to discuss the essential elements to writing a short story.
One of the cold, hard truths of short story writing is that you only get one read. Whether your story is part of a collection, or in a magazine someone’s holding, or in the hands of someone who’s considering publishing it, you usually only get one shot per story with any one person. (Right? When was the last time you started reading a story, didn’t feel drawn in or—worse—became confused about what was going on, and restarted it?) With that in mind, I place a high value on clarity and economy.
A great way to embark on a short story is to begin with a sentence you can’t argue with. Start with a scene (instead of a setup) and with an action (instead of commentary). Let the readers know—right away or very close to right away—where they are and who they’re with and what’s going on. No one relishes confusion, and no one likes having his or her time wasted.
Who’s your ideal reader? Don’t imagine someone who loves your work and gets what you’re trying to do. Imagine the most impatient person you know, the one whose attention is hard to hold onto, the one who says spit it out or get to the point when you’re trying to tell an anecdote. That’s your ideal reader. If you can successfully engage someone like that, you’re probably not cutting yourself any slack in the clarity department, and you’re definitely not cutting yourself any slack in the economy department.
Don’t worry about whether the story you’re trying to tell is interesting to anyone but you. Make it interesting. One of the best ways I know to do that is to make the minutiae as familiar and universal as possible. Your character might be picking up a vacuum from the vacuum repair shop and thinking about an ex-lover. She might be standing on the deck of a listing ship, filled with wonder and panic as she watches a leviathan rise out of the sea. He might be nine years old and watching his parents’ marriage dissolve in a solution of bickering and alcohol. Regardless, your reader wants your characters to feel at least a little familiar. No matter what your character does, say, once that leviathan is established on the page, having her sweat, letting her hands tremble, making her forehead tighten when it first appears—those things are familiar to everyone.
Another way to make your story interesting for your reader is to write with compassion for every one of your characters. That doesn’t mean you have to want to hug them all. It means that you’ve done the work of getting inside each character’s head (regardless of the story’s point-of-view) and figuring out what it’s like in there. The world is full of nice people and jerks, generous people and selfish dolts, good Samaritans and villains, and here’s the key to unlocking them all: Difficult people don’t see themselves as difficult. Boring people don’t see themselves as boring. Villains don’t see themselves as villains. We all feel justified in doing what we’re doing in the moment we’re doing it. I know that’s a bit of a generalization, but use that as your starting point when you have a walk-on character who says something insensitive, or when you’re writing about a father who barks at his kids the moment he gets home, or a woman who steals a lot of cash from her employer and goes on the lam, or the guy who rents her a motel room and then dresses up like his mother and wields a kitchen knife. Write about all of them with compassion. That way, they can do less-than-ideal or regrettable or even terrible things and still feel real to your reader.
Keep in mind that in nearly every short story, the main character isn’t exactly the same at the end as she or he is at the beginning. If you ever catch yourself midway through writing a story and think, what’s the point?, that’s the point. Experience changes us—sometimes in very small, barely noticeable ways, but it changes us. It adds to us, or it subtracts from us.
Lastly, don’t trust yourself too much. You’re the best person for the job of writing your short story, but you aren’t the best person for spotting its shortcomings. You aren’t the best person for gauging whether or not your ending makes sense, for example. I once had a main character die at the end of a story and felt pretty satisfied with the quiet way I’d rendered it—until I gave the story to two different friends, and neither one of them realized the character had died. That wasn’t a call for me to defend why I’d written it the way I had; it was a call for me to go back to my desk, roll up my sleeves, and fix a problem I hadn’t been able to see. You’re writing for other people, so let a few of them weigh in before the stakes get high.