Short stories and essays, many believe, are nothing alike. And there are good reasons to believe this. Surely it follows, then, that thinking about a short story in the same way as we think about an essay is unhelpful.
The exact opposite has the case for me.
For decades in the college classroom, I taught students about the importance of a thesis, of always having a clear argument or analytical point that the reader could see. Sometimes, of course, that point might be stated explicitly, though other times it is implied.
I think about this same thing when I am writing a story. The only difference is that instead of thinking about an “argument” or an analytical “observation,” I think about a storytelling thesis.
So what do I mean? The essence of story on the paragraph level, I believe, is some combination of what is “happening” and how the character “feels” about it. What might be occurring could be anything, of course. A character might be going for a walk or having a discussion or doing laundry. What turns that action into a story, however, is how the character feels or thinks about what she or he is doing. Is the character walking to try to stop feeling so annoyed at something someone just said, or is the character trying to hide his or her attraction to the other person in the conversation, or is the character doing laundry as a way of avoiding something that she or he knows should be done instead?
Once I decide on the storytelling thesis, I try to make sure that EVERYTHING in the section furthers that idea. This includes descriptions, interior thoughts, dialogue, narrative action, and the rest. Sometimes the thesis is stated explicitly and sometimes it is implied. Either can work.
Here is a quick example from one of my stories, “A Map of Years,” which appeared originally in The Southern Review. In the story, the protagonist is in love with his brother’s wife but doesn’t want to admit it to himself. After surgery on his hand, he stays for a time in his brother’s house, and here is his response to being there:
His favorite time of day is when Patty returns. She works half days as a receptionist at a dentist’s office in Conway. But by the time the sun is just beginning its descent toward the river, when he sees out the back windows the light filtering through the trees and making a glimmering atop the gray current, she comes through the front door and puts down her purse. At once her words are a gift, tumbling out without a care or a concern. He is in a thrall. He thinks of the persistence of a waterfall, splashing. And he studies the fine lines in her face—there is a growing perfection to her as the years accumulate—studies, even, the crooked left incisor that crosses the tooth beside it, and the first gray hairs. And he knows that he is happy in this life.
There is nothing subtle about the protagonist’s response. Everything in the paragraph is designed to express it. That is the “storytelling thesis” I attempt.
Of course, I chose this example because it makes the point clearly and directly. Other times when we write, we might have more than one point we are trying to make, or that point might shift or evolve as the paragraph progresses, or we might make the point more indirectly.
Still, I believe that the idea is the same. When you write an essay, you want your reader to understand your thesis, to always know what you are “getting at.” The same is true with a short story. The only difference as that as fiction writers what we are “getting at” is some combination of what is happening and how the character feels about it.