On Short Stories: Part 1/3
By Cassidy Ward
I love short stories. And if you’re here, it means you love short stories, too. Or at least, you’re interested in flirting with them and seeing what develops.
Short stories are wonderful for that, the sort of romantic literary fling which burns hot and fast. They don’t ask you to stick around for breakfast or to call them the next day. They are perfectly happy spending an evening with you before going your separate ways, leaving the option open for a repeat rendezvous any time you’re in town.
Short stories are the great literary love of my life. Most of the things that I write are short. Maybe that has something to do with the mathematics of it. In a year’s time, I might draft one novel, but I can write dozens of shorts. They’ve got the upper hand in that regard. But I think it has something more to do with the way my head works. The stories I cook are dense, reduced to a thick base, if stories are a soup made of characters and plot, I prefer to make single servings of chowder.
While I’ve been known to write the occasional novel-length tale, my base programming is such that 40,000 words is long.
I’m much more comfortable between five and ten. In and out, like a late-night bank heist, that’s where I live.
Before we go much further, I want to get a couple of things out in the open. The first thing is this post is longer than I originally intended, so we’re going to break it up. At the end of this post, I’m going to give you some homework, then we’ll reconvene to discuss it. Second, I can't teach you how to write or how to find your voice, I don’t know that anyone can. Not really. It’s the sort of thing you learn through an ancient combination of magic and osmosis. And I can't write your story for you.
The secret to writing a short story, or any type of story, is that there are no secrets. Or, rather, there are, but they remain secret. No one has any answers, not any they can give you, anyway. The best we can hope is that, over time, you’ll get a little better at groping around in the dark.
Writing a good story is a magic trick. Ask a magician how she does a particular card trick and they might throw some jargon at you, they might just do the trick again hoping you’ll be able to see it this time, likely they’ll tell you it’s something you just have to learn by moving your fingers in a certain kind of way over and over until it comes outright. Which is a pretty good explanation for how stories are made.
I can tell you (probably) how a specific story was done but I can’t tell you how every story is done. It’s like asking how to build a person one molecule at a time.
Each story (or person) is different, they have their own DNA, no two are the same. I can show you the similar structures that most good stories share, the arms and legs, fingers and toes, but those are just bones. They don’t a person (or a story) make. Even then, we’d be forgetting all the ones with extra fingers or webbed feet, vestigial tails or dangly mutated appendages. And those are some of the most interesting ones.
Good stories do, of course, share many common elements. There is a method to the sorts of things people like in stories. But to follow those guidelines too closely, too coldly, might kill whatever tale you’re trying to tell. Stories are alive and forcing them through a checklist is like keeping a tiger in a steel cage. Sure, you end up with a tiger, but it’s lost a lot of its majesty.
It's possible, even likely, that when you reach the end of this you will not have all the answers. What might happen, instead, is you might leave with a new way of thinking about stories, or maybe you'll be reminded of ways you knew but had forgotten. More likely, and what I really hope, is you might walk away with the assurance that you are capable of navigating the acrid swamps of short story land and that you write something wonderful. Because you are capable, and unless you’re writing harmful tales, the world needs your stories.
I’m going to ask you to read a card trick (don’t worry, it’s moderately brief) then we’ll see if we can figure out how the story was done and how you can do it too. This trick is called Fancy Hansey Does Necromancy, and it goes like this.
Fancy Hansey Does Necromancy
Handsome sits in the windowsill of a one-bedroom, rambler-style home, soaking in the sunlight. He can still remember the days before Old Woman brought him here. When he'd been tied up and left outside for days at a time until he cried so much he lost his voice, permanently.
Old Woman came and rescued him. She cut the rope that held him and she named him Handsome even though he wasn't. He was weak and he hadn't eaten in days. His eyes were crusted over from a weeping that never totally went away.
Somewhere along the way, he'd lost the ability to retract his claws as well, so that he got stuck in the carpet everywhere he went and couldn’t call for help.
Outside, Wednesday ran in the yard chasing birds. Wednesday was a demon. Not in any figurative sense either. She was literally and truly a demon disguised in a cat’s skin. She crawled through a portal from Hell a couple of years prior and straight into their lives.
Wednesday liked to hunt the birds, not for any primal feline desire but because she liked to practice her Necromancy and for that, she needed dead things.
She’d spend all day chasing birds, killing them, and bringing them back to life.
Over the years, Wednesday had tried to teach Handsome how to do it.
“It’s easy,” she would say. But Handsome would always decline. He remembered too clearly what it was like to fear death and had no desire to deal that feeling to anything, or anyone, else, no matter how temporarily.
Wednesday had a bird’s corpse pinned to the ground; she was breathing into it and saying The Words. She took a few steps back and a moment later the bird hopped up, looked around as if it wasn’t sure where it was, and fluttered away.
Handsome could hear Wednesday laughing with joy as she loped toward the window. She sat in the grass outside, cleaning herself, and called to him.
He pretended he couldn’t hear her. Just taking a nap, I’m asleep and you can’t wake me, he thought.
“Handsome! Come out and play!”
Handsome opened one eye just a crack so that he could see her looking in at him with those falsely adorable eyes. He knew what really lay behind them, mischief and fire.
“Just join me for one little resurrection and I’ll let you alone for the rest of the day. I just want to teach you. You never know when a murder or an un-murder might come in handy.”
While the offer of a day undisturbed was tempting, he knew exactly what she was doing. She’d made him watch more times than he cared to remember and he wasn’t interested in seeing it again.
“Raising the dead only might kill you, probably not, and I’ll be right there to bring you back. What are you so afraid of?” she said, as if that was supposed to comfort him.
“Leave me alone, Wednesday. I’m perfectly happy right here.”
It was too much to hope that she’d leave it at that. Wednesday wasn’t accustomed to not getting what she wanted, powers of evil and all, she found Handsome incredibly frustrating. She began pacing in front of the window, taunting him.
“Look at me, I’m Fancy Hansey. I’m much too proper to play outside, or run in the woods, or gasp kill a bird.”
She actually said gasp, he couldn’t stand it, and he hated when she called him Fancy Hansey.
No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t understand what Old Woman saw in her. But he loved Old Woman and Old Woman loved Wednesday, so he tolerated her as best he could.
“You truly are a poor excuse for a cat,” she said before trotting away and disappearing into a portal that appeared, only for a moment, in the yard. Wednesday’s verbal assault was shorter than he’d expected. Pleased with himself, he went back to enjoying the sunlight in the window, and before long, he was happily snoozing.
Handsome awoke sometime later to the sound of keys jingling at the door. Old Woman was home. He leapt from the windowsill and greeted her at the door, rubbing his scent along her stockings. She greeted him with a scratch behind the ear. How he loved scratches behind the ear.
Handsome followed Old Woman to the kitchen where she set down her bag, weaving between her legs all the way, then out to the yard. He glanced from fence to fence for any sign of the devil-cat and was glad to find her missing.
They walked together, he and Old Woman, out to the barn where the horses lived. Handsome feared and respected the brutish creatures, keeping a watchful eye on their crushing hooves while Old Woman climbed an old wooden ladder to the hayloft, her spindly frame moving carefully rung by rung.
He didn’t like it in the barn; it reminded him too closely of the days before Old Woman had come. When the most he could hope for in the way of shelter was a rickety shed that threatened, every winter, to collapse under the weight of the snow and crush him while he slept.
“Look out below!” Old Woman said as she toppled a bale of hay down from the loft. It bounced off the old wooden ladder and crashed on the dirt below. The horses snorted and jumped in anticipation of the meal and Handsome made sure to stay well away.
Old Woman placed a foot on the top rung and braced herself with the railing to make the trip back down. Handsome was beginning to regret his decision to come along on this errand. The sun would be down soon and it was already getting cold. He longed for a warm lap in front of the television or a bite to eat and a discarded sweater to curl up in at the very least.
Then Old Woman put a foot on the next rung and it gave way. A crack echoed through the barn sending the horses into a panic as the rotted wood fell to splinters beneath her. Her hands let go of the railing and she fell. Handsome heard a second crack when she hit the ground and panic seized his heart as well.
He ran to the woman, nudging her with his forehead to get up, but she wasn’t moving, not even the slow movement of breath.
Handsome ran out of the barn calling for Wednesday all the way. He ran to the four corners of the yard pleading for her to show herself but there was no sign of her anywhere.
In desperation, Handsome returned to Old Woman, clamped down on her wrists, and pulled. She didn’t move and when he let go of her wrist it fell limp, back into the dust.
He took three deep breaths, letting them out slowly to steel himself for his next move. Then he leapt onto Old Woman’s chest and licked her lovingly on the face.
“It’s okay. I can fix this,” he said.
He knew exactly what to do. He had seen it more times than he cared to remember. He let the last breath out slowly into Old Woman’s mouth and said The Words.
Cassidy is a journalist and author of fiction. As a journalist, he has written for Syfy, Observer, StarTrek.com, and Big Shiny Robot. His popular Science Behind the Fiction column has been read more than a million times. As an author, his award-winning short story “One Among the Flock” was published in the anthology A Little Wrong. His debut novella, "Ravel," is available now. You can keep up with all of his stories and journalism on his website, and find his shortest writings (by virtue of character limits) on Twitter.