In the run up to this year’s Online Writing Tips Short Fiction Competition, we’re doing a series of posts on short fiction. Previous videos have looked at beginning a short story. Today, D.D. Johnston begins to reflect on the importance of endings, and why short stories are like jokes.
Following on from our last video, D.D. Johnston looks at the opening to a modern classic short story: “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri. You can read the full story here: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/l/lahiri-maladies.html
D.D. Johnston discusses James Purdy’s short story “Cutting Edge” as an example of how a seemingly insignificant conflict can make for high drama when it stands for something bigger. In “Cutting Edge” the question of a young man’s beard becomes the symbolic terrain on which an inter-generational battle is fought. The story is about moral values and the future of America, but all of this is left unsaid, lurking below the water – after all, when people argue they rarely refer explicitly to what they’re really arguing about. In this sense, Purdy’s short story can be said to demonstrate Ernest Hemingway’s “Iceberg principle.” You can read the full story here.
Metaphor: a figure of speech that finds similarities between two things. From the Greek metaphora: meta (among, over, with, beside) and pherein (“to carry”), metaphor literally means to carry one thing into another. It is a way we writers can create infinite shades of meaning, just as an artist can create infinite shades by mixing the colours on her palette. Aristotle believed use of metaphor was a sign of genius. Certainly, it can facilitate economy of expression: to write that one’s room is “like a prison cell” contains a range of meanings that would otherwise take paragraphs to express. But using metaphor isn’t always easy…
Sometimes I’m asked to critique a story, or a scene in a novel, that, despite being well written, is somehow kind of bland. There may be nothing wrong with it – the author communicates clearly, and uses concrete detail, and writes strong dialogue, and deploys a consistent and appropriate point of view, and doesn’t clutter her prose with adjectives or adverbs, and yet, somehow, the story or scene doesn’t leap off the page – it’s dull. One option is to make the characters more distinctive, more idiosyncratic, more unusual. But very often the solution is to take the characters and their conflict and transpose them into a distinctive micro world.