Developing Your Writing Style in Short Story Writing
In fiction writing, differences in style and language distinguish writers from each other. These variances are also evident from writer to writer in the types of characters who take the stage, what they say, and what happens to them. These dissimilarities are so significant that they usually determine a genre for the writer's work.
For example, Stephen King often writes about middle-class Americans who encounter unspeakable evil. His material is much different than Danielle Steele's: she writes about middle or upper class women who encounter hidden dilemmas or agendas within themselves or their surroundings. But both writers use simple, clean language to tell their stories.
Anne Rice, when she writes about vampires, relies on archaic words and phrasing to take her readers back in time -- but she doesn't forget that her language must still be accessible to the readers. As a writer who makes drastic moves in time, Rice is known for her skill and style. She hints that this skill is rooted in a passion for language: "I loved words," she said. "I love to sing them and speak them and even now, I must admit, I have fallen into the joy of writing them."
Fannie Flagg's narrators sometimes use poor grammar and slang -- that's because they live in the South where folks don't got to speak properly all the time. The styles of other writers may be more or less obviously different from the examples touted here, but I hope you understand the point: Identifying your writing style will help you develop a distinctive voice.
Maybe you love the novels of Michael Crichton. If so, you probably mimic his style somewhat when you compose your own work. There's nothing wrong with that -- in fact, it can be very effective writing exercise to model the masters -- but I doubt that you want to be a copycat, a rip-off, or a B-grade specimen. As you build a body of work, you should also be honing your style so that readers know where you belong in the spectrum of American fiction. The sooner you define your style, the sooner you will earn publishing credentials.
Lorrie Moore enjoyed success as a storywriter early in life because she emerged onto the literary scene with a style that was undeniably her own (she's also terrifically talented). In the story "You're Ugly, Too," readers uncover Zoe's conflict through a blend of second and third person and frequent humor. A sentence like "Her students were by and large good Midwesterners, spacey with estrogen from large quantities of meat and cheese," or "When Earl arrived, he was dressed as a naked woman . . ." read independently might be guessed as Moore's by anyone who has enjoyed her books.
What's Your Style?
I suspect that you already have an idea about your style. Most of the time, you write in a style similar to the work you like to read. Your style might change over time as your literary tastes move in new directions. When I first began to write fiction in a college course, I wrote funny stories because I liked to make my classmates laugh. But after the class was over and I was writing on my own, I began to appreciate the stark and somber qualities in writers like Lynn Sharon Schwartz and Joy Williams. I was also impressed by the brutal ironies in Mary Gaitskill's work. Then there was the poignant quirkiness of Lee Smith and the raw clarity of Richard Bausch, which both held me spellbound. And, although I also fell in love with the hilarious Laurie Colwin, I abandoned humor for a while to experiment with other styles. You might do the same.
You might consider yourself a commercial writer, one whose writing falls in a particular genre: Mystery, horror, romance, action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy, and inspirational are the most commonly known. Within each genre are sub-genres that tend to ebb and flow in popularity and breadth of readership. For example, the romance genre has bred itself into historical, contemporary, Christian, paranormal, and suspense, among many others. Authors who write for a genre will find that style becomes especially important: Because most aspects of the plot are dictated, the most successful commercial writers rely on their voice to stand apart from their peers.
How Does Style Develop?
Developing a style is a matter of awareness. Pay close attention to your characters and the world you're creating. A good question to ask yourself is what sort of background music would suit each one of your scenes. If you have hard rock in your opening paragraph and hip-hop in the next, then you might be bouncing around too much. This is especially true in short stories, which don't give you much time to change your tones. Attention to your words, especially the dialogue and the narrative voice, will alert you to inconsistencies and sparse spots. Develop your style the way you would cook a meal -- add some spice here and there, and boil with broth instead of water.
I think that a short story is like a room, whereas a novel is more like a house. Think about the one room that is your story today: What does it look like inside? Are the walls neutral or bright? Carpet or hardwoods? Can you see a tree from the window or a city skyline?
Will the reader spend time in this room, or is he compelled to leave?
End Your Story Like a Master
Think about the movies you've seen. How many times have you been disappointed in the ending? I would guess it's happened more times than you would prefer. Even with all their dollars, Hollywood's most esteemed writers and directors struggle with the integrity of their stories as much as you do. Money can't buy a great ending because a great ending comes from the soul of the artist.
I'm here to tell you that brilliant conclusions are definitely possible. I've read many, and will cite some of them later in this article. But, first, I want to point out the reason why conclusions are so important: In today's hostile publishing world, you will be most successful if you can end your stories perfectly. What is perfect? American inventor R. Buckminster Fuller articulated perfection in a way that I find especially moving: "When I am working on a problem," he said, "I never think about beauty. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."
We should begin by touching upon three classic approaches to ending a story:
The "All Is Well" Ending
The All Is Well Ending is probably the least sophisticated conclusion you could strive for, but it's better than an unsatisfactory close. In this ending, you resolve the conflict and let the reader know that the main character is going to be okay. For examples, look at commercial novels and short stories, especially those in the romance, mystery and suspense categories. This ending is very common on TV shows, where the criminal has been put to justice, the dead have been buried, and living victims are at peace.
The Surprise Ending
Even the most experienced of writers love to pull off the Surprise Ending. Here, the carpet is pulled from beneath the reader's feet. For a most famous example, we can look to the French writer Guy de Maupassant, author of "The Necklace." In this short story, a pretty but poor woman named Mathilde borrows a diamond necklace from a wealthier friend only to lose it at a party. Her husband takes out a loan to replace the bauble, and they spend decades in hard labor in order to pay their debt. But one day, Mathilde -- now broken and bent from years of servitude -- encounters the wealthy friend and tells her the truth: She lost the necklace and replaced it at her own expense, the net worth of a a decade of labor. The wealthy lady is aghast -- she drops the surprise in the story's last line: "Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste! It was worth at most only five hundred francs!"
A surprise ending doesn't have to be ironic, just surprising. The secret to writing a good surprise ending is to fully plot the story before you write a single word. This way, you can omit the events that might lead the reader to guess the surprise before it's time. It's not easy, but if you can do it well then you'll probably have a piece worthy of an editor's eyes.
The Poetic Ending
The last type of ending is the one we'll look at closely: The poetic ending is the kind that is most likely to conclude the Great American Short Story, especially in contemporary times. In this ending, the reader gains the sense that the main character has learned a life lesson. However, the poetic ending is significantly different from the "All Is Well," ending; the edges are rough rather than smooth, the message is realistic rather than contrived. In the "All Is Well" ending, readers see the sunset; in the poetic ending, the readers see that the main character is human.
For examples, look at any of the endings in your textbook. My favorite is the close to Richard Ford's "Rock Springs." In this title story to the collection that secured Ford's reputation as the crown prince of dirty realism, protagonist Earl is in a hotel parking lot, looking for yet another car to steal. Already longing for the woman who is about to leave him, he begins flinging questions to the reader:
And I wondered, because it seemed funny, what would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn? Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day trouble would come down on him? Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him? Would you think he had a daughter? Would you think he was anybody like you?
Most literary short stories won't make you laugh or smile at the end; they are more likely to haunt you and make you think about the story's theme. In some cases, the ending might be called anything but uplifting. Take Lorrie Moore's "Your Ugly, Too," as an example. The protagonist, Zoe, has evolved from a happy-go-lucky English professor into a cancer patient confused by her loneliness. At the end of the story, she spitefully tries to push a potential suitor over a balcony:
Really, I was just kidding!' Zoe shouted. The wind lifted her hair up off her head, skyward in spines behind the bone. If there were a lake, the moonlight would dance across it in conniptions. She smiled at him, and wondered how she looked.
Likewise, the end of Richard Bausch's "The Man Who Knew Belle Starr," ends on a down note. McRae, the hero, lies in a ditch, waiting for his murderess to find him:
McRae was gone, was someone far, far away, from ages ago -- a man fresh out of prison, with the whole country to wander in and insurance money in his pocket, who had headed west with the idea that maybe his luck, at long last, had changed.
Another Take On the Poetic Ending
Not all poetic endings are sad and depressing. In "Brokeback Mountain," for example, we part with Ennis as he's feeling concrete, resolved, and almost hopeful:
There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it you've got to stand it.
Great American Short Stories could not be great without their great endings. These are the endings that move the stories into our dreams, that rise up when we are writing our own work. These final words, simple but powerful, are the tiny knots that secure the pearls of contemporary American fiction.
Writing Your Ending
It's easy enough to read great endings, but how do you write your own?
The truth of this matter is that no one has a formula for ending the Great American Short Story. What you can do, however, is be aware of common problems writers encounter at the end of the short story:
- Ending the story too soon: Are you in such a rush to complete your story that you leave the conflict unresolved?
- Overkill: Does something crazy and unexpected (and out of tune with the rest of the story) occur on your last page?
- Change of face: Does your main character or another major character lose his or her integrity? An example of this would be having him murder someone as a means to bring the story to its close.
- Amnesia/Mind Block/Dream: Does your story end by letting the reader know that "it was all a dream?" Or, does the main character recover from amnesia or a mind block?
- Dangler: Will the reader come away from the story with enough information? Or does the story simply wither away without conveying its message?
And then you can call it a day.
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