The first section of Hills’ book is titled The Short Story, as against the Novel and the Sketch. It runs four pages. In those four pages you will find Hills’ overarching thesis, a detailed explanation of what a story is and isn’t, a paradigm by which language can be mapped to every aspect of fiction technique, and an explanation of how short stories achieve a unity of purpose and focus unlike any other written form. It is the densest, most informative four pages ever written about fiction writing, and if you read the section ten times you will learn something new each time.
The single most important sentence in the whole section, however, is the first:
This book implies that some techniques in fiction tend to have absolute effects, and tries to explain what they are.
For all the disdain Hills directed at how-to-write books in the Introduction, here he is letting you know that Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular is a how-to-write book. Note also that he uses the word ‘fiction’ above and not the phrase ‘short fiction’. The techniques that Hills describes in his book are not unique to short stories, they are simply intensified and concentrated in short stories. Everything that he talks about — every technique — is portable to every kind of fiction.
What Hills is saying, here and throughout his book, is that ably doing X will necessarily cause the reader to think/feel Y. He’s not saying this might happen, he’s saying that these relationships are “absolute” in storytelling. The implied obverse of this claim is that your inability to do X — even if driven only by ignorance — will keep the reader from thinking/feeling Y. Bold claims to be sure, but what if he’s right?
If you’re the kind of person who can’t resist any sort of intellectual mousetrap you may be tempted to fixate on Hills’ definitions of the short story, novel and sketch. He avoids falling into the trap himself, but I’m fairly certain proponents of flash fiction will want to take him to task. Because I’m prone to such fixations myself I’m going to follow Hills’ lead and ignore questions having to do with categorization. Instead, I’m going to focus on the utility of Hills’ observations.
There has never been a denser, more complete definition of story than this:
A story tells of something that happened to someone.
At first blush these nine words may seem both absurdly obvious and impossibility incomplete. They’re not. This is now the only answer I give when someone asks me to define what a story is, precisely because it is complete. Just as importantly, the obviousness and simplicity of this definition obliterates the idea that storytelling — including literary fiction — involves intellectual mysticism. Hills’ definition is neither MFA posturing, academic blather or critical sleight of hand, but analytic simplicity.
Relative to aspects of story, here’s how these nine words break down:
A story tells of something [plot] that happened [change] to someone [character].
No alchemy and no pretense: just a simple expression of technique that every writer can get their mind around no matter what their level of ability or preference of medium and subject matter. But it gets better.
Focus as Technique
In differentiating the short story from the novel, Hills emphasizes the unity of focus found in short fiction. Where the novel has “space/time for a quantity of incidents and effects,” the short story provides “‘a single and unique effect’ to which every word contributes…”
Hills is primarily concerned with drawing distinctions here, but note what is being left unsaid. Hills takes it as a given that some authors will want to write short stories. He doesn’t ask or answer the question of why someone might want to work in the form. It’s a fair question, though, and some of you are probably asking it right now.
Imagine for the moment that you are a long-distance runner. Most of your training is road work covering heavy miles. But on some days you do interval training — more concentrated workouts over shorter distances — to build muscle and train your body to sprint for short periods before falling back to your normal pace. You may use such sprints in races to catch people or leave them behind, or at the end, to break away at the finish.
Learning how to write powerful, focused short stories can teach you how to achieve similar focused effects at key points in longer works. In basic three-act structure there are anticipated, constructed moments that are pivotal to the reader: the climax, transitions between acts, revelations, etc. The ability to consciously focus the effects of a longer work at specific points, replicating the intensity of the short story, is a powerful addition to any author’s arsenal of techniques.
Whether you write novels or stage plays or screenplays or graphic novels or any other long-form narrative, I want you to think of the force and power of a well-written short story as something portable and directly applicable to your work. Because it is.
Next up: Character and Action and the road less traveled.
— Mark Barrett