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Thread: The Elements of Fiction: What Makes a Short Story "Good?"

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    The Elements of Fiction: What Makes a Short Story "Good?"

    As I see it -- and who says my vision is any better than anyone else's?-- here are some of the elements of good fiction:

    --As in good poems, a good piece of fiction avoids abstractions. As William Carlos Williams reminds us, "No ideas but in things." (Most good writing is about something.)

    --It "shows" rather than "tells," in that it doesn't get bogged down in excessive exposition, explanations, superfluous descriptions, and endlessly chronological narration. It's subtle, a tickle from a feather rather than a blow from a ball-peen hammer.

    --Something happens. (Shows us HOW and drops a hint or two as to WHY.)

    --Its subject concerns one or more human beings who conceivably could draw breath right here on Planet Earth. (If you're writing a fable or a SF story, the non-human characters should have human qualities to which the reader can relate.)

    (WHO? It shows us the character or characters with some salient characteristics, not the full “Wikipedia”-style vita sheet. Well-constructed dialogue can go a long way in revealing what makes a particular character tick.)

    --Uses LANGUAGE which in itself reveals the character(s) and/or narrator(s) in a thoughtful, entertaining, and illuminating style.

    –Takes risks in both choice of topics and especially in expression, and is courageous enough to challenge the status quo, while attempting to come up with a piece of fiction that is completely fresh. But at the same time, one can’t break the rules until he or she knows what they are, so:

    - Respects both language and readers in regard to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. (No writer is so good that he or she doesn't understand the necessity of revising, rewriting, and proofreading.)

    --Presents all of the above in a way that engages the reader, in that the reader can participate in the creative process. A writer has a choice between talking down to the reader or assuming that the reader is just as smart as he is, if not more so. The wise writer always chooses the latter.

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    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    --As in good poems, a good piece of fiction avoids abstractions. As William Carlos Williams reminds us, "No ideas but in things." (Most good writing is about something.)
    I'm not a professional writer, nor even a good reader. The string of words: "No ideas but in things", however, is not even a sentence. I think we should stop quoting people like Williams. Just open the garbage can and drop these authorities in.

    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    --It "shows" rather than "tells," in that it doesn't get bogged down in excessive exposition, explanations, superfluous descriptions, and endlessly chronological narration. It's subtle, a tickle from a feather rather than a blow from a ball-peen hammer.
    Although I actually agree with this, there is a use for telling as well. The part that is preparatory should just be told. A writer is "telling" the story, not "showing" it. However, not everything needs to be made explicit and that is where "showing" becomes valuable. It is often best to reduce the number of words replacing the description with some dialog that implies the description.

    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    --Something happens. (Shows us HOW and drops a hint or two as to WHY.)
    I definitely agree with this. I would add, something interesting happens.

    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    --Its subject concerns one or more human beings who conceivably could draw breath right here on Planet Earth. (If you're writing a fable or a SF story, the non-human characters should have human qualities to which the reader can relate.)

    (WHO? It shows us the character or characters with some salient characteristics, not the full “Wikipedia”-style vita sheet. Well-constructed dialogue can go a long way in revealing what makes a particular character tick.)
    That seems reasonable.

    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    --Uses LANGUAGE which in itself reveals the character(s) and/or narrator(s) in a thoughtful, entertaining, and illuminating style.
    Entertaining is the key idea.

    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    –Takes risks in both choice of topics and especially in expression, and is courageous enough to challenge the status quo, while attempting to come up with a piece of fiction that is completely fresh. But at the same time, one can’t break the rules until he or she knows what they are, so:
    I sometimes read the stories in The New Yorker. It's in the library and I go there often. Many of these stories, however, bore me and I wonder if I'm wasting my time. As I said I'm a bad reader, but I find the stories are too long and aren't giving me anything that is memorable. When I'm done, I ask myself, "So, what?" I don't know what it means to challenge the status quo. If that is what they are doing, they should stop doing it.

    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    - Respects both language and readers in regard to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. (No writer is so good that he or she doesn't understand the necessity of revising, rewriting, and proofreading.)
    This should definitely eliminate Finnegans Wake.

    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    --Presents all of the above in a way that engages the reader, in that the reader can participate in the creative process. A writer has a choice between talking down to the reader or assuming that the reader is just as smart as he is, if not more so. The wise writer always chooses the latter.
    As a reader I don't want to participate in the creative process. I want to be entertained. I think writers try too hard because they don't have a story to tell, but feel they have to write something. Since I'm mainly a reader, I am more naturally a whiner. I do keep forgetting that writers to the best job they can and some get more praise than they deserve while others who deserve praise get none.

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    I love a balanced perspective like i love scrabble cheat on my spellchecker...I'm exposed

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    This is an interesting question that applies to fiction in general.
    It is in fairly recent times that the 'show not tell' rule has become predominant; the rationale for it being the pervasiveness
    of the moving image and concomitant lack of imagination on the part of the reader.
    If I am reading about a person who is going to climb a difficult mountain on which others have died in the attempt, I don't need
    to be shown the difficulties, I am quite capable of imagining the hardships the climber is going to face but, in an age when
    everything has to be done for us, even the pleasurable pursuit of the imagined is being eliminated from reading fiction.
    One of the reasons that films seldom live up to their novelistic origins is precisely because they destroy the pleasure engendered
    by the reader building up their own image from the author's description. Great film makers know this and use cinematic techniques
    as an acceptable substitute.

    With regard to the use of grammar, spelling etc., a story will not be fully appreciated unless judicious use of these writing facilities
    is applied. Proofreading is an art in itself and, accordingly, a costly skill to acquire professionally.

    Challenging the status quo may have led to some ground breaking works but it has also led to some pseudo intellectual nonsense by
    writers who seek to make a reputation on notoriety alone. The above reference to Finnegan's Wake appears to fit this scenario. It
    reminds me of the joke about a primitive tribe that, before the existence of the wheel, used square stone blocks; pushing them over
    from one side to the next. When the corners began to wear into a rounded shape, the tribe replaced them with square ones because
    the old ones had become worn.

    Good writers write for their readers and never talk down to them but, where seeking to influence the reader, it is useful to leaven
    such writing with humour or to lighten the touch to avoid appearing pedantic. The best writers inform and entertain because, if
    informing is the prime consideration, why not write non-fiction?
    "L'art de la statistique est de tirer des conclusions erronèes a partir de chiffres exacts." Napoléon Bonaparte.

    "Je crois que beaucoup de gens sont dans cet état d’esprit: au fond, ils ne sentent pas concernés par l’Histoire. Mais pourtant, de temps à autre, l’Histoire pose sa main sur eux." Michel Houellebecq.

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    The OP did specifically ask 'What makes a Short Story "good"?' (my italics) which would mean Finnegan's Wake is not be relevant to the discussion.

    I was once told that a short story is like a snapshot - it catches a brief moment not a lifetime. There is only one point of view: there are no subplots. There's no room for extensive background, neither place nor personal history: it's that moment that counts.

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    Quote Originally Posted by kasie View Post
    The OP did specifically ask 'What makes a Short Story "good"?' (my italics) which would mean Finnegan's Wake is not be relevant to the discussion.

    I was once told that a short story is like a snapshot - it catches a brief moment not a lifetime. There is only one point of view: there are no subplots. There's no room for extensive background, neither place nor personal history: it's that moment that counts.
    Agreed, but I did point out that the attributes apply to fiction in general, although I doubt that Finnegan's Wake warrants even that description.
    "L'art de la statistique est de tirer des conclusions erronèes a partir de chiffres exacts." Napoléon Bonaparte.

    "Je crois que beaucoup de gens sont dans cet état d’esprit: au fond, ils ne sentent pas concernés par l’Histoire. Mais pourtant, de temps à autre, l’Histoire pose sa main sur eux." Michel Houellebecq.

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    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    As I see it -- and who says my vision is any better than anyone else's?-- here are some of the elements of good fiction:

    --As in good poems, a good piece of fiction avoids abstractions. As William Carlos Williams reminds us, "No ideas but in things." (Most good writing is about something.)

    --It "shows" rather than "tells," in that it doesn't get bogged down in excessive exposition, explanations, superfluous descriptions, and endlessly chronological narration. It's subtle, a tickle from a feather rather than a blow from a ball-peen hammer.

    --Something happens. (Shows us HOW and drops a hint or two as to WHY.)

    --Its subject concerns one or more human beings who conceivably could draw breath right here on Planet Earth. (If you're writing a fable or a SF story, the non-human characters should have human qualities to which the reader can relate.)

    (WHO? It shows us the character or characters with some salient characteristics, not the full “Wikipedia”-style vita sheet. Well-constructed dialogue can go a long way in revealing what makes a particular character tick.)

    --Uses LANGUAGE which in itself reveals the character(s) and/or narrator(s) in a thoughtful, entertaining, and illuminating style.

    –Takes risks in both choice of topics and especially in expression, and is courageous enough to challenge the status quo, while attempting to come up with a piece of fiction that is completely fresh. But at the same time, one can’t break the rules until he or she knows what they are, so:

    - Respects both language and readers in regard to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. (No writer is so good that he or she doesn't understand the necessity of revising, rewriting, and proofreading.)

    --Presents all of the above in a way that engages the reader, in that the reader can participate in the creative process. A writer has a choice between talking down to the reader or assuming that the reader is just as smart as he is, if not more so. The wise writer always chooses the latter.
    Now we know. ROFLMAO

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    I heard there were not enough stories, good or bad, for an April elimination. Maybe what we should all do is write one that conforms to our understanding of what a good story would look like just to see how hard this might be.

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    Quote Originally Posted by cafolini View Post
    Now we know. ROFLMAO
    Cafolini, the post was intended for some of the fledgling LitNutters, not for those who knew this previously.

    But I really do appreciate the sarcasm.



    This should definitely eliminate Finnegans Wake.
    Finnegans Wake is indeed fiction, but is by no means "eliminated"

    Cf. : –Takes risks in both choice of topics and especially in expression, and is courageous enough to challenge the status quo, while attempting to come up with a piece of fiction that is completely fresh. But at the same time, one can’t break the rules until he or she knows what they are.

    I'm willing to bet that not only did J.J. know everything there was to know about the English language, he knew every rule of several other languages as well, which is certainly much more than yours fooly can say.

    PS -- This anecdote may be apocrypal, but I once read that when Joyce was writing Finnegans Wake in Paris, he used to dictate to a secretary, none other than Samuel Beckett, who was instructed to write down every single word Joyce said. One day when there was a knock on the door, Joyce said "Come in," which Beckett dutifully jotted down.
    When questioned about it later, Joyce decided to leave it in.
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 04-08-2013 at 05:27 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    Finnegans Wake is indeed fiction, but is by no means "eliminated"

    Cf. : –Takes risks in both choice of topics and especially in expression, and is courageous enough to challenge the status quo, while attempting to come up with a piece of fiction that is completely fresh. But at the same time, one can’t break the rules until he or she knows what they are.

    I'm willing to bet that not only did J.J. know everything there was to know about the English language, he knew every rule of several other languages as well, which is certainly much more than yours fooly can say.
    So, shall we skip the following rule?

    - Respects both language and readers in regard to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. (No writer is so good that he or she doesn't understand the necessity of revising, rewriting, and proofreading.)

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    A story must contain the content of a story. I read a lot of these shorts and they don't read like stories but more of an abridged summary of a story. Stories should include character interaction, dialogue, a beginning, a middle and an ending, entertains the reader not educating them. Really the elements of a short story should be the same as a long novel, only shorter and less time consuming. If your story reads like the summary on a hardcover sleeve then you haven't written a story, you have written the idea for a story. That is my take on the whole thing. Also, when I read a book or a story I really don't like being challenged to learn things and solve riddles, I say leave that to the text books in the classroom.

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    Thanks for reviving this thread, NS. I wrote two short stories this summer--the first I ever attempted. Each was around 20 pages, but I wrote them on a scroll so it's hard to tell. I found the writing experience pleasureful and liked what I produced more than I expected. But I wished many times that my Aunt Shecky was unavailable to give me the guidance I needed as a noob. I am happy to say that I lurched into a kind of beginner's competence, at least to go by her post above, but I am sure both stories could be much better and I trust Aunt Shecky's opinions (and not many others) on how to get them there.

    It was interesting and a little strange that neither story could not be started at will. I had to wait until the inspiration came, and then I couldn't write fast enough. I was also surprised that the plots opened up on their own accord as I wrote; the trick was to choose believable manifestations of cause and effect that the reader would not necessarily expect. But that was where my subjectivity got in the way. I honestly don't know whether I was subtle or obvious. I do not want to post either story on this site for reasons I don't want to get into, but I will be seeing my father and brothers soon, and they have agreed to give me their impressions. I trust those at least to be candid.

    So thank you, NS. This thread was helpful in understanding the writing process I stumbled into (however awkwardly). And please, Aunt Shecky, come back and share your wisdom with us again!
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 08-25-2016 at 08:38 PM.

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