Monday, June 27, 2011

Mystery and Manners: The Key to Telling A Story

It seems there has been a lot of discussion lately about short stories and their value. Some people love them and some people hate them. The biggest complaint I have heard from those who don't like them is that short stories are just too short, that just about the time they start getting really in to the story, it's over. I can relate, I've felt that way too.

In Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Flannery O'Connor makes the case that the essence of all story, but most especially short stories, are composed of two things: mystery and manners. That is not to say all short stories are mysteries but there has to be something to wonder about in order to get the reader interested. Will the old man land that bloody big fish? Will those two cowboys ever figure out that they are living a lie? Will something happen to rescue Cinderella from her horrid stepmother? Will that vain, foolish girl ever get over herself and admit to her friend she just lost the stupid necklace? Once a writer knows what the mystery is all s/he has to do is figure out the manner – the way these people will behave and how that relates to the story. A story based on a good mystery can be told a thousand times through different manners? Will those two young lovers ever free themselves from family expectations and be together? How many times has that one been told – in the courts of Tudor England or the streets of Spanish Harlem or the hills of Appalachia?

Some time back I had this idea that I thought was quite horrifying. I knew there was a story in it and I started telling it but the longer I worked on it the more I became aware that the only way this story would be properly horrifying was if manners of the characters were in stark contrast to the particulars of the story. I'd only ever written one horror story before (“Home-made Pie & Sausage” which is in love, murder, etc.) and it soon became apparent that the manners for the story in my head had to be very, very different than the ones in that story. Part of what makes horror horrible is the circumstances in which it occurs. At least for psychological horror that is true.

So for the past two weekends I have been pounding away on the story I'd been thinking about for close to a year and yesterday I finally got where I needed to be. I think non-writers may not realize that, no matter how good your basic premise for a story is getting from the beginning to the end is sometimes excruciating. It's not enough to just tell the story, you have to reveal things in a manner that is enough to keep the reader interested but leave out enough to – well – keep them interested.

The first draft of my story is now complete. I have to clean it up, tighten it up, run it by some readers and then I'll release it as an Amazon Single. At 15,000 words it qualifies as a novelette so that is how it will be listed. I am calling it The Crazy Old Lady in the Attic. I like that title and it seems appropriate. I'll let you all know when it is posted.

I was glad to read Flannery O'Connor's description because it gives me a different way to look at both story writing and story reading. Sometimes a story is short because what is contained in the story is the only thing worth talking about in the character's lives. A lot of people have told me that the think my short story “My Last Romance” in My Last Romance and other passions would make a good novel but, of course, I disagree. All the story that there is to be told about those three people's lives is right there in the story. I could probably expand it and go on and on about the nightclub scene in the 1950s and singers and musicians and add in some hot romance but it doesn't need it. There is a mystery, where on earth did this peculiar man find this record that once meant so much to Ruby and will she ever find out what happened to the man she once loved? All the rest is the manner in which these mysteries are resolved.

Thanks for reading.


  1. I've said before that your talent is so broad that you've nailed the art of the short story as well as the novel. You may well be on your way to becoming the Flanery O'Connor of New England and I, for one, would love it if it were so! Kudos on your novella; I can't wait to read it.

  2. Thank you so much. You are just the best encouragement! Want to be a beta reader for the new one?


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