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A Clinic On How To Write A Short Story

Since I recently had occasion to read Theodore Beale's (Professional Crank on the Internet, hereafter PCotI) and Mary Robinette Kowal’s (MRK) Hugo-nominated short stories back-to-back, I’ve realized that the two stories are object examples of how to (and not to) write short fiction. Here are my thoughts in more detail.

Neither story is what you’d call action-packed. In MRK’s story, the one-line is “lady astronaut decides whether or not to go on one last mission.” Although PCotI’s story has a body-count of 60 or so, the action is off-screen. The one-line summary is “elf finds friend.” But MRK’s story grabs my heart, and PCotI’s leaves me cold.

The first thing that MRK does right and PCotI blows is point of view. In MRK’s story, the “Lady Astronaut” of the title is the POV and narrator. PCotI uses a 3rd-person POV. That has its advantages, but in a short story, especially one in which the same two characters are in nearly every scene, 3rd person imposes an emotional distance that isn’t needed.

The second thing that MRK does right is provide a hook. The story starts on the first paragraph, with the line that ends “under the shadow of the rocket gantry for the First Mars Expedition.” PCotI spends two pages or so describing a guy walking down a path, and then suddenly we learn said guy’s an elf. What – the person watching him (who we never see again) can’t tell elf from human?

Then we get to characters. MRK actually has quite a few – but we care about all of them. Dorothy, twice-orphaned by the space program, Elma York and her crippled husband Nathaniel – even the lady who cares for Nathaniel, Genevieve, are real people with real backstories. In PCotI’s story, the only people with any backstory are two minor characters – monks who go with the elf on a supply run. No, if you’re going to skimp on backstory, Monk 1 and Monk 2 are who you skimp on.

In MRK’s story, the conflict is between Elma’s desire to fly again (duty) her love for her husband, and her husband’s love for her. In PCotI’s story, I’m not sure I could tell you what the conflict was. PCotI tries to jam 10 years into a novelette – MRK focuses on a few weeks. MRK also provides a lot of fan service – York works at Bradbury Space Center and knows a Dorothy from Kansas. If there’s any fan service in PCotI’s work, I missed it. World-building – PcotI spends a lot of time on describing a bog-standard Medieval Europe, MRK sketches in a realistic Mars on the fly.

An award-winning story needs to work on multiple levels. MRK’s does, PCotI’s does not.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 23rd, 2014 03:23 pm (UTC)
Yup. This, no question.

Nice review and perspective, may I link?
Apr. 23rd, 2014 03:54 pm (UTC)
You may link when ready, Gridley...
Apr. 23rd, 2014 05:05 pm (UTC)
Good piece on writing here....
User daveon referenced to your post from Good piece on writing here.... saying: [...] Hugo nominated Short Stories in terms of how they approach the nature of the story and then tell it [...]
Apr. 23rd, 2014 07:03 pm (UTC)
And it opens with a description of the weather more ornate than the rest of the story. I mean, how clichéd can he get?

And Selenoth is just a generic fantasyland with blatant Christianity.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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This is the personal blog of Chris Gerrib, and all opinions expressed here are solely his own. Commenters are welcome; however please be polite to me and my other readers. I reserve the right to delete comments that are rude, inappropriate or otherwise objectionable at my sole discretion. The opinions expressed in a comment are not necessarily mine, and if I do not delete a comment that should not be construed as my agreement with the commenter.

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