Writing Excuses 12.33: How to be Brief, Yet Powerful
Key Points: Brevity, it’s not just for short stories! How to get an idea across in a brief number of words. Start by honing in on what you want to tell, during the conception phase. Start with your character, what do they want, what are they doing to try to get it, and what obstacles do they have to overcome? Instead of punch-by-punch action scenes, try an emotional buildup, one headbutt, and the effects of that. Make sure that readers know what is at stake. Specifically. The consequences of failure. Look for powerful moments. Use the cold open! Short story titles frame the story, and often are longer. Look for resonant phrases, or borrow from quotes. To evoke a whole world, be specific about one thing. Food is often good for this. Knowing that a reader will probably read a short fiction piece in one sitting, and only read it once, may affect pacing, paragraphing, and emphasis. Many stories are competent, but forgettable. Make your characters specific, give the reader an emotional connection to the story, make it particular. “The more specific you are, the more universal it becomes.”
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 33.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How to be Brief, Yet Powerful.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.
[Brandon] And we’re talking about brevity. Which is, of course, the thing I excel at doing.
[Mary] I still remain so proud and smug.
[Brandon] I have written a short story. I’m writing another one right now, I just told you about it at the break.
[Mary] I know. But 4000 words?
[Wesley] One short story in your whole career?
[Brandon] I’ve written one short story in my whole career. Yes.
[Wesley] All right.
[Mary] And I taught him to do that. Mwahahahahaha.
[Wesley] I have written none so far.
[Brandon] We’re going to be listening to Mary and Mary Anne talk about this…
[Brandon] [garbled] Though it’s not just about short stories. It’s how to stick a scene and get an idea across in a brief number of words.
[Mary] It is something that I have used in novel form as well. For me, what I find when people are conceiving of an idea, particularly people who are going from novels to short fiction, they just try to put too much into it. You can’t handle all of those things with the sensitivity that they deserve when you’ve got so many pieces. That’s often when you wind up with something that feels bloated or flat. So, the thing for me is to really hone in on what it is you want to be telling. To narrow down, like can I roll these characters together, do I need to move to a new scenic location? This is in the conception phase, where I think about what it is that I really want the story to be about, and try to add nothing else to that core idea.
[Mary Anne] I think my best way to think about this, and I’m someone who started with poetry which I wrote for two years, then started writing short fiction, and I tended to write very short pieces, about a thousand words long. I had to slowly learn to add, get my pieces up to 5000 words. Then my short stories eventually now tend to be more like 8 to 10,000. I’m working on making the shift to novels. My early drafts look like a play, because I start with here is my character in a very classic form. What do they want? What is in their way? Right? They’re trying to get to some goal. Mick McGriff actually, I remember, told us in Clarion that if your character wants something badly, it almost doesn’t matter what it is that they want, because the reader will empathize with this desire for something that they want badly. Right? It’s sort of instant reader identification. So they want it, they’re taking action to try to get it, and there are obstacles that they have to overcome. That’s my core. I tend to go from there to working out the dialogue in my head. I lay down the dialogue, who are the… Usually it’s people who are in their way. Who have their own goals and their own things that they want badly. So I lay down the dialogue and I don’t put in a lot more than that. Right? So I put in, after that, whatever setting description is necessary. Then I’m done.
[Wesley] So, for me, like early on in my career, I come from like a martial arts stuntman background. So when you do choreography, you have very specific movements, timing, pacing, everything’s very well laid out. So I wrote that way. So I would have long, elegant fight scenes that were frankly pretty boring, because what’s good visually isn’t always good on paper. My agent was like, “You know what, read some Lee Child’s. Okay? See what it means to be brief like… To really make a scene concise and powerful.” So I read some Lee Child’s. Where I would have like a three-page fight scene, he would have an emotional buildup, then he would headbutt the guy. That would be his fight scene.
[Wesley] He just nailed the focus down to just that one headbutt and the effects of the headbutt. It was so much better that way. So, that’s kind of an example I use a lot for… When it comes to action scenes.
[Mary Anne] Actually, Hemingway’s fight scenes kind of look like that, too.
[Mary] I think that the key thing that you’re both talking about, the emotional buildup, the thing that they want, one of the things, the really key things for brevity is making sure that the reader understands what is at stake. That there is an emotional connection between the reader and the character, and the character and the action that they need to take. A lot of times, we have what is at stake be something fairly generic, like they might die. This is something that is a stake for everybody, it’s not specific to that character. So something that is more specific to them would be like if your character is a cellist, they might lose their fingers. That is a very specific fear for a cellist. It’s something that might trouble anybody, but it comes with something very, very specific. That, for me, when I’m looking at stakes, it’s not what is going to happen, what is the thing, it’s what is the consequence of that. What is the consequence of failure? That, I think, can be something that makes brief scenes really, really powerful, is to help the reader understand that.
[Brandon] That’s excellent. I really like how we’re going on this topic. As you were talking, Wes, I was realizing I feel like Lives of Tao had really brief, powerful scenes all the way through it. You say you don’t write short stories, but I’m thinking just of the prologue… I don’t know if it’s the prologue or chapter 1, where you basically introduced what the entire plot is going to be by having the previous bearer of Tao die and they find the new bearer and they’re a slovenly, kind of nerdy guy. You’re like, “This book is going to be about this guy becoming like that guy was at the end.” You nailed that, and it was only like 2000 words or something.
[Wesley] Thank you. Well, I mean, I killed everybody’s favorite character in the first chapter, basically. But…
[Brandon] Well, you know. It works. It’s good. But brevity can be about having that… Nailing that scene at the beginning, I think, because Robert Jordan did this too. You do not think of Robert Jordan for brevity…
[Brandon] 14 book series. But a lot of people’s favorite scene from the series is the prologue to the first book. Which is a short piece. It shows a powerful moment where a man goes crazy and has killed his family, realizes what he has done, and then creates a mountain out of his anguish and buries himself in it. Right?
[Mary Anne] I might point at something similar, actually, the prologue to Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite… I mean, I just… Kay is one of my favorite genre writers. When I think about what do I aspire to as a writer, it’s a cross between the minimalism of Alice Munro and the lyricism of Guy Gavriel Kay. If I could meld those two, I would die happy. But…
[Mary] For… After you wrote a lot of fiction?
[Mary Anne] I would write a lot of fiction first. Well, no, my other goal is to be like Asimov and write 100 books. Right? So… But Kay has this prologue in Tigana which is just this little battlefield scene that is short, it is brutally emotional. It completely catches you up into the story in a few pages. Even if you don’t read anything else of his, you must read that prologue. It’ll teach you a lot about power in a short space. Then, it actually ends up super important at the end of the book. Which is amazing. It’s like a tour de force.
[Brandon] My favorite single volume epic fantasy ever written is Tigana.
[Mary] It’s brilliant.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and sto… Oh, you’ve got a few things, then we’ll stop.
[Mary] Oh, I was just going to say that one of the things that we’re talking about here is a phenomenon that you see in television and film all the time which is the cold open. So just taking a look at the openings of James Bond films, those are brief but powerful. That was all I was going to say. I tried to keep that brief.
[Brandon] Let’s start… Or, let’s stop for our book of the week. Which we have promo’ed before. We’re going to do it again because the paperback’s coming out. It is Ghost Talkers.
[Mary] Yay. So, Ghost Talkers…
[Brandon] Wait, no, I am going to promo it.
[Mary] Is a book that I wrote that Brandon is going to talk about.
[Brandon] I want to promo it.
[Mary] And I’m going to blush. Fine. You go.
[Brandon] I want to promo it.
[Mary] You do it.
[Brandon] I can’t remember if last time you promo’ed it if I had listened to the audiobook of it.
[Brandon] Because I listened to the audiobook of it. And you know that Mary reads her own books, right? For the audiobooks? But listening to it is a very special experience. It feels like Mary has come over to your house and is reading you a bedtime story. That is…
[Brandon] What it… No, because I know Mary, and you know Mary, listening to her. It really feels like your friend is there reading you her story. I love the story anyway, but it came alive in a way I had never imagined it would, having Mary read it to me. She is an excellent voice actor and it is an excellent book. Combine the two of them, and it just is brilliant. If you haven’t read it, it is what would happen if England had a force of mediums in World War I and their job was to have the spirits of dead soldiers report into them before they passed to the Great Beyond. The main character, soldiers start reporting to her, one in particular who was killed by someone wearing a British uniform. So there’s a spy. So it’s a spy thriller, where she is trying to find this by tracking ghosts and things. It’s just supercool, and Mary will read it to you. So, go get the audiobook of Ghost Talkers. It is a fantastic book. Or the paperback, which just came out.
[Mary] And for those of you not watching the video feed, I am bright red right now.
[Wesley] There’s a video feed?
[Brandon] Yes, yes, well.
[Mary] Oh, you didn’t know that?
[Brandon] It’s actually coming from your computer right now, pointed at you.
[Brandon] We just put it up.
[Wesley] Actually, the guy undressed today.
[Brandon] All right, there’s a weird thing I wanted to ask here, during this podcast, but I don’t know if there’ll be much time for. But how do you come up with a title…
[Brandon] Particularly for short stories? Because short stories seem to have these brilliant titles.
[Mary] Short fiction is so much easier for me to title than novels.
[Brandon] Oh, really? Okay.
[Mary] Yeah. Because novels, you need a single word or fairly short word. Every now and then, you see a novel that has something like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. But most of the time, it’s one or two words. Short fiction… The thing about a short fiction title is that it is doing part of the lifting of the story. It is the frame of the story, and you can get longer with it. So it’s, for me, much easier to title a short fict… Piece of short fiction.
[Mary Anne] It’s kind of funny, because I’ve been doing one word short fiction titles. But I think you’re right, there is a little more leeway. My favorite title, short fiction title, is Time Considered As a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones, which is a Chip Delany title.
[Brandon] See, brilliant short story writers like that, and all… I Have No Mouth, but I Must Scream…
[Mary Anne] That’s a great one.
[Brandon] Like, these short story titles, just…
[Mary Anne] Love Is a Plan, the Plan Is Death.
[Wesley] You can’t put that on a book cover.
[Brandon] They just kick me in the face with how awesome they are. I really think it is short fiction writers knowing how to squeeze the most out of their words. Writing something that you say, “I just have to read this. I absolutely have to read it.”
[Mary Anne] That said, when I’m stuck, I will usually try to lift a title out of the story.
[Mary Anne] I’ll look for a resonant phrase.
[Mary] Yeah. My hack, when I’m stuck, is to go to a Shakespeare database and type in a thematic word and then look for a quote. I’ll do that on novels, too, but it’s harder, because I have to pick like one or two words. Actually, Calculating Stars and Faded Sky are both out of Shakespeare.
[Brandon] Oh, are they? They’re such good titles for the books, too.
[Mary] Took forever. But… Really, the novels took me like multiple iterations. Short stories, I can just title.
[Brandon] Okay. How can you evoke a larger world through just showing the highlights?
[Mary] This is one of my favorite tricks. You’re specific about one single thing. So… Dates. Dates are really useful. Like, if you’re writing ep… I have written epic short fiction. So rather than saying, “Oh, this happened 50 or 100 years ago,” I said, “This happened in the time before the Battle of the Red Armies.” That immediately says that there are…
[Brandon] Right. That evokes a world. That’s a great example.
[Mary Anne] I use food a lot, I think. You know, I think food carries so much weight. It’s a sort of easy way to get the reader caught up and engaged, because you get hungry reading about mouthwatering descriptions of food. But if I tell you that this character is making chai, that just brings a whole weight of cultural context with it. Right? It’s not just tea, it is chai. That is a specific thing. And if they linger on the cardamom and the cinnamon and the cloves and so on, then that’s going to add more detail.
[Mary] Now I want chai.
[Mary Anne] I’m drinking some right now.
[Brandon] So does it change the nature of your story when you’re working on it, knowing that someone might read it… Will probably read it in one sitting, as opposed to multiple sittings. Mary, when you write a short story, does that affect it at all, or…
[Mary] Yeah. I mean, it probably at some point did. One of the… It affects the way I interact with my readers in that I ask them specifically not to read the story more than once. Because I know that most readers will, in fact, only read it once. There’s a handful of people that read it multiple times, and I would like it to stand up for that… Stand up to that. But what it means, for me… And this is actually another place where being an audiobook narrator comes back in. With audiobooks, you can’t backup easily and re-listen to something. So if a detail goes past and you miss it, then it’s just gone. So that means that when I’m doing my short fiction, if there’s something that is plot specific, even in brief forms, it means that I’m going to break… If I really want the reader to see it, I’m going to tend to break it out into its own paragraph. So that it… So that they have a pause so that they can really see it. So a lot of times, I guess, it affects the way that I paragraph and handle pacing more than it does anything else.
[Brandon] Okay. So how can you really make something memorable? I think we’ll end on this note. What is it that makes…
[Mary] Lord knows.
[Brandon] A piece of fiction, a moment in a piece of fiction, really memorable?
[Mary Anne] So, can I start from the opposite?
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Mary Anne] Which is… When I’m editing for an anthology or I’m reading my students’ work, a lot of the stories are competent, but forgettable.
[Mary Anne] So that’s like… The vast majority, in fact, of what I get are… I use a grading scale when I am editing anthologies. So as I’m reading, I’m marking them as A, B, C, D. Because I’m [garbled] so on. You would think that most would be bad, but no, most of them are B stories. Like, almost everything I get is a solid B. It’s fine. But that’s all it is. It’s fine. Right? So I think one mistake that I see a lot of is the characters are generic. That’s like the… A guy walks into a bar, for my college students’ stories, right? I don’t know anything about the guy. I don’t know like… This is one of the reasons why I tend to emphasize character, and, in fact, writing out of identity. Because it matters if this guy is a Polish American, fourth-generation, parents changed their name when they came over, or great-grandparents changed their name, and… That’s all going… Maybe his parents are heavily Catholic and he’s left the church. All of that is going to influence how he sees the world. If what he’s doing, he’s walking into the bar and he’s hitting on the pretty girls sitting at the bar, I want to see all of that cultural history in the words he chooses to use, and in his approach, and how he… How his body language changes as he walks up to her.
[Wesley] I think it’s more like the emotional connection that the reader has with the story. That’s kind of what lingers after they finish a story. Based off of your example, like if a reader is reading a story and the guy is flaming out, trying to hit on the bartender. The reader goes, “Man, that has happened to me so many times…”
[Wesley] “Where like I’ve asked this pretty girl. It’s just I can tell there’s dead space between us, and I don’t know how to extract myself from the situation. This is the worst day ever.” That is what is memorable for me as a reader.
[Mary Anne] Yeah. No. I would agree with that, I guess. I just… I guess I just feel like… I don’t know, I feel like students often, they’re trying to reach for something universal like heartbreak. I think they generalize to get to the universal, where what they should be doing is particularizing.
[Mary] That was something that on last season, Desiree Birch was on. She talked about the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes.
[Brandon] That was a great episode.
[Mary Anne] It’s a really counterintuitive thing, but it’s so true.
[Brandon] I think it’s 100% true. It’s one of these… There’s a few things like this in fiction that are counterintuitive, but if you read them, they’re true. The fact that often short bursts… Short sentences can read slower than long sentences is something people don’t quite pick on… Pick up on. But if you stop at each of those short sentences, and you read them and you think, “Oh, something important is happening.”
[Brandon] This has been a really good discussion. I’m actually going to have to call it here. But Mary has some homework for us.
[Mary] Yes. What I want you to do is we’re going to start from a concept. This is a thing that I wind up doing… Weirdly, I have typewriters and I will set up at a convention and I will sit down and I will write a short fiction… Piece of short fiction on demand. So what I want you to do is basically this. You’re going to pick a character. An object. And a genre. Then you’re going to write 250 words. That 250…
[Brandon] Only 250?
[Mary] Only 250 words. One page. That needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Which means, just in case you’re thinking about this already, that means that it is one try-fail cycle. So one character, one object, one location. Now if you want to bring in another character, that’s fine. But be aware that every time you add another character, those are more words that you need to handle that person.
[Brandon] Awesome. That sounds really hard.
[Mary Anne] Sounds like a good homework exercise for Brandon.
[Brandon] Yes. This has been Writing Excuses. I’m out of excuses, now I’ll go write.