I can’t recommend Bird Box by Josh Malerman enough. Maybe I’ll link to my Goodreads review of this masterpiece. But seeing as most of us are writers, I thought I’d take things from “read this” to “read this to learn how to write” territory.
Josh Malerman made a number of technical writing craft decisions in this novel that we can learn from.
Here’s a list.
Limited Third POV
Alternating Story Line Structure
Simple language / “Minimalism”
Delayed (or Late Entry) Planting & Paying Off
Last thing. Bird Box was published in 2014, so I’m not concerned with spoilers. Having said that, I’ll do my best not to ruin the book for you.
Let’s do this.
1. Present Tense
Sustaining a narrative in present tense is difficult. This is because the main desired affect of present tense is to give the story immediacy.
This is happening now.
Done well, the reader feels as if they’re living the action.
The pitfall is that the longer any gimmick is used, the less effective it becomes. Maybe it even becomes tiresome. The trick is to not do it in such a way that anyone in their right mind would call it a gimmick.
My take on present tense is that it’s most successful when the book couldn’t possibly be written in past tense. In workshop speak, “Justify its existence.”
I take it a step farther. I’d advise a writer to justify present tense in the first place, but then, in addition, provide mechanisms in the book that allow it for it to work at sustained length.
Josh Malerman does this masterfully.
Reasons why Josh Malerman Teaches Us A Present Tense Masterclass
The setting of Bird Box is a post-apocalyptic suburb in Michigan. There are two alternating storylines. One takes place in a house. The other on twenty miles of a river, located behind that house, as Malorie and Boy and Girl seek Rick’s promised shelter.
To begin with, in a post-apocalyptic world, the past does not matter. As a matter of survival. Modern conveniences go right out the back door with the filthy bath water, and in order to literally survive, people must live moment by moment. Where’s your next meal? A simple injury could mean infection and death, et al.
In the world of Bird Box, society was destroyed because when people see creatures from another plain of existence, their minds cannot comprehend it. As a result, they become violently mad, killing others and/or themselves. Thus, Malorie, our POV character, and every other character in the novel spends the majority of their “screen” time blindfolded.
When one’s senses are deprived in anyway, we rely more heavily on the others. Common knowledge. But think of this. Losing the (arguably) more important senses of sight or hearing, would cause you to have to focus much more carefully on the minutiae of making it through a moment-by-moment existence.
Thus, the employment of “survival mode”-justified present tense, operates on the deeper level of sensory-deprivation-justified present tense.
What We Can Learn
Simply put: how to do present tense well, and how to sustain it over the length of a book.
Put another way: the thought that should go into the big craft decisions of our stories.
Sure, part of what makes Bird Box a masterclass in using present tense is Malerman’s amazing premise/plot. But I think if we, as writers, apply this multifaceted approach to justifying the more conspicuous craft choices we make, our readers will thank us.
I decided to turn this into a five part series. Each of the five craft lessons we can learn from Bird Box deserves its own post.
But honestly, I also knew that you wouldn’t read a post that looked like it would end up around 3,000 words long.
7. A character’s motivation can’t achieve clarity until you do
I once wrote a 75 page novella. Then I saw a movie with the same premise, changed it, and boiled it down to a now-published 25 page story. The exploratory writing of the fifty pages I cut taught me exactly what my character wanted.
Then I workshopped the story. And the character’s motivation and therefore the plot changed again in the next draft. If I hadn’t cut fifty pages and allowed other eyeballs to look at the story, I never would’ve achieved the distance I needed to make it publishable.
Figure out how you best achieve distance/clarity from your work, and do it.
8. What the hell does “Write what you know” mean in practice?
Two main principles I took away from reading it were that a short story should:
Be about a topic that you either really love or really hate.
Have a character in your story that wants something related to that love/hate of yours.
When you approach a story in this way whatever you love/hate, or “know,” will sync up nicely with the driving force of the character by the second or third draft. There are millions of examples of how this can work out. Regardless, I am convinced that this is a formula for those stories that are just special.
To find what you love/hate Bradbury suggests making lists of nouns. Sounds silly, but it’s a pretty powerful way of doing this. The third step in this system is starting off with steps 1 and 2 covered, and just freewriting until a story takes shape.
9. Get used to exploratory writing if you care about character
Hemingway said that “the first draft of anything is shit.” I’d amend that to “the first draft of anything is drawing a map.”
Exploratory writing is different than freewriting.
Exploratory Writing is done with the intent of eventually producing a final product, but with the conscious acceptance that most of it will totally suck, and being at total peace with that because you’re willing to find “Atlantis.”
I touched on exploratory writing in #7, but I use it here to illustrate that you might sit down for a day’s writing without much of a plan in mind and end up writing the best short story you’ve ever written. You might think that one character is your POV character and end up with another. You may simply be writing the backstory your character needs in order for you to make a story set at a different time in his life work.
The trick is being open to exploring. If you aren’t, you risk writing wooden characters.
10. You should cater to your favorite literary journals
This may seem against the grain for the “true artist” in you, but just relax and hear me out. When you find that handful of journals that suit your genre and stylistic aesthetics, see what type of characters and narrative structures the editors are publishing.
Then, whether in revision or at the beginning of drafting a new story you can cater your writing to those editors.
To a certain extent. Without detracting much of anything artistically.
You won’t get this advice elsewhere because it contrasts with the ideals of the artistic process, but it’s true. Being genuine to your own writing involves finding like-minded journals; the next step is making the editors happy so they’ll publish you.
11. Fiction Sense versus Real life Sense
Although this sounds obtuse, it’s painfully simple. Real life can be a messy shit show full of years of apathy, no conflict, senseless decisions, and no climactic moments.
Sorry, bro, no one wants to read that crap.
No matter what type of fiction, readers almost always want some element of escapism.
Fiction Sense means approaching your story and character arcs in a way that pleases a reader’s expectations, be it the traditional story structure or whatever a certain audience expects. So a clever character or situation, some sort of tension, a climactic moment, and all the questions answered at the end.
You’d be amazed how difficult it is for amateur writers to make it over this hurdle, believing that “but this is how it would happen in Real Life,” is valid.
12. What makes a short story “good” is the affect it has on the reader
A good note to end on is defining what makes a short story “good.” Honestly, it’s impossible. But from my experience it involves three things:
Character’s Epiphany Being Meaningful
I’m convinced this is what it takes to write a short story that matters. Notice that all three involve characterization.
If your readers can relate to the character emotionally and can remember either the name and/or character traits a week later, then you’re going to get that story published. Same goes for the character’s arc, or how they change, sometimes called the epiphany.
If the character’s epiphany is relateable, if it hits on some larger Truth the reader recognizes for the first time, about themselves and/or the world at large, then you’ve written a great short story.
Hope you enjoyed the second half of the 12 tricks to short story characterization
Comment below and let me know what you think. Now go finish your story.
Advice on characterization in short stories can be vague and frustrating, but I promise that mine is as concrete as the streets you walk.
“Tricks” is really a euphemism for the advanced mystic-level writing advice you’re about to get. I (l)earned them through blood, sweat, and crippling mental anguish. Here’s my resume:
Twelve years of
writing workshop barbarism and
soul-vandalizing rejection from editors;
millions of words of useless story drafts, and
$100k of student loan debt
I bet you see a lot of on-writing articles that regurgitate the same beginner approaches to short story writing. I see them everywhere. And I always used to think to myself, “God, I wish someone would lay some advanced knowledge on me. I know the basics. Just give me the key to figuring this short story crap out.”
This is what I’ve said out to do for you, in a post that originally started at 12 “tricks,” but got slashed in half once I hit 3000 words. I know you ain’t got time for that.
So let’s get you off and running with six, and the next part of this two-part series will be up next week!
6 advanced-level tricks to characterization in short stories
1. Combine characters who serve the same function in your story
This often comes up in a short story workshop. As part of the short story as an art form, you should limit your scope as much as possible for the sake of overall concision. This includes the number of characters you put on the page.
Be wary of third wheel characters. A lot of amateur writers will put a character in the story that serves a function in the story that they falsely believe the antagonist cannot serve. A brief example from my own work.
In an early draft of my short story, “The Women in Grenada Part 2,” I had a character’s former boxing manager as an important character in the past who shaped the protagonist; then, I had a separate character who ran the illegal boxing ring that the main character took part in for money in the present. Then a brilliant woman in my weekly writing workshop said that it would be more powerful if I combined the former boxing manager and the illegal boxing ring hustler. They served the same purpose in the story, really, and in fact, this made the whole premise more emotionally resonant.
Look for opportunities like this in your short story. Remember that it’s all about condensing in short fiction, that less done well is more powerful in this form than having a lot of good elements.
2. Be careful about the timing and weight of characters who aren’t central to the story
In short fiction characters who get a lot of attention and get it early on are expected to develop and be the main character in a short story. Editors and readers will tell you without exception that red herring characters kill stories. An example might be starting a story focused on someone other than the point-of-view character.
Keep in mind that the word count wheelhouse is around 3000-5000 words right now in the current literary journal scene. You can’t breathe at this size. There’s good news though. Short stories should only have one POV character, until you’re good or big enough to smash that rule. So to be honest, all you need to do is not give supporting characters backstory, flowery descriptions, or excessive dialogue, unless it is crucial to the main character and their plot.
A second easy-to-follow trick here is avoiding name soup. Even you become expert at introducing characters, doling out too many first, last, and nicknames too rapidly, makes the reader feel as though their drowning in hot, boiling name soup. Consider ice-breakers back from college orientation: weak-kneed and self-conscious you meet a hundred people, and what, remembered ten names? The same goes here, but the reader is trying to determine which character they’re supposed to care about.
3. Have your character be interesting in the first place
I created a character/plot quadrant that explains a painfully simple way to ensure your characters are interesting.
Yes, you could argue this is oversimplified a bit. But I swear that over the years this has come up time and time again in workshops. Writers create normal average Joes or Jills, and thrust them into normal average worlds. Or, indicated by the German Shepherds, they put loco characters in frenetic, nonsensical worlds.
I give this advice all of the time, and I’ll give it to you now. Readers are more likely to care about your character, and secondarily, your plot, if you use contrast here. It’s inherently interesting and full of conflict to see crazy people cope with normal settings, and to see normal people cope with crazy settings.
4. Don’t mistake idiosyncrasies for character depth
A dumb idiosyncrasy, in the context of short fiction, would be the high school quarterback who also loves reading the Romantic poets. Or, say, the young woman who trips ovaries every weekend at raves but has a Beanie Baby collection she tends to meticulously. If the story pivots on these personality quirks then of course that’s an exception. But if the only purpose, as I intend with my examples, is to show that the author wants the readers to understand these characters have a level of softness to them… it’s dumb.
While idiosyncrasies can be meaningful and great, it’s not where character depth comes from. For instance, if that quarterback doesn’t go to the rager after a big win because he has to and wants to go take care of his mother who’s on hospice with terminal cancer, and he reads her Keats because she loves that, that’s depth. Ditto, if the raver is so hungry for an escape because her bank account is overdrafted and she lets psychologists study the affects the drugs have on her brain for extra dough, and the only way to fall asleep at the clinical trials is cuddling her Beanie Babies.
A common mistake amateurs make is telling the reader about quirks, instead of showing real depth.
5. Minimalism is an artistic style not a copout for weak ass characters
For the longest time, I struggled with revising my short stories. In fact, I’ve had years where I’ve done no writing other than first drafts because I was overwhelmed and confused by the process of revision. When I was younger my solution to this was just cutting. I thought “every word in a short story has to matter” meant that omission was the mission.
It didn’t help that my favorite writers were minimalists like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and at one point even Amy Hempel. The truth is that minimalists wrote that way because it was how they best got their stories across. It’s not for everyone. I learned the hard way that the iceberg theory only works if you actually have the part the Titanic runs into and the submerged part, not just floating ice cubes. I.e., you can’t just slice, dice, and assume that your reader is going to care enough to interpret subtext in your story.
Put another way: nobody cares about the subtext of what someone they don’t care about says.
6. You have to read literary journals.
If we’re all being honest, it’s pretty overwhelming how many aspiring writers who want to publish in literary journals do not read literary journals. Literary journals and the short form itself are tailored for the experimental and avante-garde. To give you a spot-on analogy, reading literary journals is the equivalent of “staying up on what the kids are up to these days” in pop culture and music for us old folks. You can’t expect to become a part of a sub-culture if you aren’t immersed in it.
The good news is that you can use submission sites like Duotrope or Submission Grinder, to narrow down the hordes of lit journals to your specific genre and/or style. From there, simply read the journals to determine if they’re really a good fit for your work. Many offer free stories, but hell, maybe submit to your one dream publication and support them.
Bonus: citing a specific story you loved in your submission query letter as the reason you are submitting your story to that journal goes over really well with editors. Even if you don’t get published that time, you’ll be creating a relationship or at least some name recognition for next time.
I have to cut this in half because your time is precious. Enough amazing short story characterization advice for one sitting
So the additional 6 tricks of the 12 will be coming next week!
What you do for now is re-evaluate your stories.
You should also totally re-read this and share it far and wide. I’d also love to hear if any of these might help you in the comments, or feel free to ask for clarifications if you’ve got questions.
For newbies without publication credits, short story writing is all about that first paragraph
You know your short story submission is good enough for the journal’s editor to publish. You used Duotrope or Submission Grinder to find the appropriate publications for your story’s skill level, pay level, genre, word count. You even read some free stories the literary journal offered on their website, and you think your story is a good match.
What the hell happened?
Your first paragraph sucked. And the intern or slush pile reader, eager to please his editor with the next Pushcart or O’Henry Prize winning story, tossed your story back into the void.
The first paragraph of a short story is the first impression on a hot date. When I sucked at picking up girls I shyly said hi and stuck my hands in my pocket; when I got better I hugged them with a huge smile and confident gaze, setting the tone for a successful night. Any honest writer will tell you that getting published is more important than hitting a home run, as the kids say.
Let’s learn how to nail that your short story opening.
Five tips on starting your short story with electric first paragraphs
1. Write your first paragraph last
The most important habit you’ll ever form as a fiction writer is to love the rewriting process. If that’s naturally your jam, God bless you. It took me seven years before I was capable of doing anything useful after a first draft.
The key here is that your story’s opening paragraph is a microcosm of the story. Specifically, it can reveal character, plot, mood, and foreshadow the end. Subtly, of course. In case you’re super anal like me and worry about technicalities, understand that the phrase ‘first paragraph’ can be interchangeable with ‘several short ones.’ (Re)write it or them last.
2. The Zingy Opener that means something
Most amateur short story writers assume that this pointer means to use shock-value or in media res action or dialogue. Wrong. Another rule you’ll hear ad nauseam about this genre is that “every word counts.” This applies to the first line.
I found advice online years ago that said a short story’s opening element–meaning fiction element like character, setting, dialogue–should match what the story mostly consists of. So in a dialogue-heavy mystery, a dialogue opening might work; in a man v. nature tale, a description of the setting might work. My advice is to open with a line that indicates at least who the character is, their state of mind, and some form of conflict.
3. The reader should glean some character insight from the story’s opener
Short story readers of literary or genre fiction read this form for character. Editors especially. The sentences in the opening paragraph should be working their asses off to explain the status quo of the character’s life. His surroundings and situation. And importantly, how he is to be perceived.
That way when the inciting incident comes along and jacks everything up, the reader understands why you’re telling this tale in the first place. Some folks call this the occasion of the story. When the story has climaxed and resolved, they’ll understand how the character has changed. This takes a subtle touch, so I think it’s time I recommend a masterful how-to book on fiction writing called Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. You’ll thank me later for that one.
4. set the reader’s expectations of what your short story is and isn’t
The editor should be able to tell a lot about what the next 3 to 8 thousand words will contain by the first paragraph. Apply macro logic first: the genre should be apparent, whether a grizzly detective tells us it’s a crime story; blood-soaked clothing tells us horror; or a taser gun tells us sci-fi; or, for literary magazines, some interior thoughts. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that because you know that you’ve sent your story to (insert genre) literary journal, that the editor doesn’t expect you to follow the genre’s conventions. They’re worried about their readers who have expectations.
And for the love of God, as a newbie, don’t try to be “genre-bending” or something. What you don’t realize is that 99% of the time when people are “transcending” or “redefining” genres, they have a big enough name that editors let them get away with it, or they’re commissioned by the editors to write those stories. If you’re sure your story does this, read what the editors are looking for on the publication’s site, because some experimental literary journals will seek this.
I spent a lot of time discussing genre here. But again, returning to that subtle artistry that makes writers great, it means plot to. Have you heard that phrase about story endings, that “they should be surprising but seem inevitable?” A lot of times the endings of short stories somehow mirror their beginnings.
5. Make the editor/reader give a damn about your character’s story
Editors of literary journals, as down-to-Earth, humble-pie as they may act, have aspirations on the literary side. Frankly, it’s usually a little snobbish. But it’s cool, to each their own. But you need to keep in mind when you’re writing and submitting your stories that these people are grizzled veterans who’ve served decades in short story slush piles and reading prize-winning, best-of collections. They don’t have time for meh. You need to grab them by the throat and make them give a shit.
The technical aspect of this is an enormous part of the short story equation that I swear gets under-taught in workshops: forming an emotional connection before the inciting incident. Any emotion. The reader could hate your protagonist’s guts. But to use a social setting metaphor again, the quiet kid in the corner doesn’t get remembered by folks at the party. That guy or girl you made a bit of extended eye contact with, or the one you wished you exchanged numbers with does.
Short fiction is all about the affect it has on the reader, so from the beginning you have to make them react to the character. Think about it this way: this step is worth the effort because even if the plot is weak or unoriginal, an editor is going to continue on if they have an emotional connection with the character.
I hope I didn’t give you too much false hope about publishing
On the blog that I’ve been following for years, The Write Practice, Joe Bunting explains that getting accepted by literary journals is as rare as getting into Harvard. In fact, top journals have 1% acceptance rates while Harvard accepts 6% of applicants. Further, short story writers will tell you to use the acceptance rate metric on Duotrope to determine the quality of a journal. This means that unless the rate is 1% or lower, it’s “not worth it” to be published there.
I say that to be up front with you about the fact that writing short stories is tough work. There’s no magic template you can use to write a story that’ll get published in The Paris Review, in The Atlantic, in Tin House, or in Ploughshares.
But you know what? People get hit by lightning and win the lottery don’t they? Amid the billions of blog posts in the digisphere you came across this one so I could share twelve years of wisdom with you. It will happen.
But remember, you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell if your beginning sucks.