Thursday, June 14, 2007

What Is A Story?

The fragment that follows is taken from a book that I read and keep reading, and that I would recommend to anyone who needs and wants to get a better grasp on the craft of writing. It is Damon Knight’s “Creating Short Fiction”. As Algis Budrys said, “What Knight doesn’t know about writing the short story cannot be put into expository prose anyway.”

"Because fiction is an invention, the author has more freedom to make it esthetically satisfying than she does in nonfiction, and therefore our expectations of being gratified in this way are high. A successful story is or seems to be all of a piece—all in harmony, all saying the same thing in different ways, having its own steady rhythm, with nothing out of key, nothing inappropriate or irrelevant.

In a story we expect a quality of completion, of roundedness, which sets it apart from a sketch, an incident, or an anecdote. For example, this is a sketch:

A little boy, named Joe, who haunts about the bar-room and the stoop, about four years old, in a thin short jacket, and full-breeched trowsers, and bare feet. The men plague him, and put quids of tobacco in his mouth, under pretence of giving him a fig, and he gets enraged, and utters a peculiar sharp, spiteful cry, and strikes at them with a stick, to their great mirth. He is always in trouble, yet will not keep away. They dispatch him with two or three cents, to buy candy, and nuts and raisins. They set him down in a nitch of the door, and tell him to remain there a day and a half; he sits down very demurely, as if he really meant to fulfil his penance;— but, a moment after, behold there is little Joe, capering across the street to join two or three boys who are playing in a wagon.

              The American Notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is an incident:

Bill was a sophisticated college junior, and I was only a senior in high school when we went on our first date. After the movie, he suggested we go to Green Hill Park—a local lovers' lane—to look at the stars, but I murmured some excuse.
I found myself liking Bill more and more, but on the second date I still refused to go "look at the stars."
On the third date I finally agreed. Bill stopped the car in an isolated spot. I closed my eyes as his face came close to mine, but I opened them quickly as I heard his voice in my ear. "Now over there " he was saying, "that's Sagittarius...."

              Joan P. Fouhy, in Reader's Digest

The following is an anecdote:

The story goes that Mrs. Vanderbilt once demanded to know what Fritz Kreisler would charge to play at a private musicale, and was taken aback when he named a price of five thousand dollars. She agreed reluctantly, but added, "Please remember that I do not expect you to mingle with the guests." "In that case, Madam," Kreisler assured her, "my fee will be only two thousand."

              Bennett Cerf, in Try and Stop Me

Finally, this is a story:

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door...


As you can see, the sketch is merely a vivid bit of description; the incident is something that happened, and so is the anecdote, with the difference that it is attached to a real person who is mentioned by name. The story, although it is only two sentences long, is complete by implication and is charged with meaning in a way that none of the others are."

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