Exploring the art of prose


10 Writing Tips for the Holidays

Or, How Good Writing is Just Like Good Conversation

By Natalie Serber

Much to my delight, The New York Times Magazine recently published a feature on “The Art of the Dinner Party.” Along with recipes (try this one for my new favorite cocktail, the Ice-Cold Martinez) and essays, the piece also included an online resource: “10 Tips on Fascinating Table Talk at Your Next Dinner Party,” by Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam. I perused the conversational crib sheet and found the advice to be pretty spot-on for story writing as well as for dinner parties. So here are the original tips along with my thoughts on how they apply to writing fiction.

“Small talk gives guests a chance to get to know one another, and to take one another’s measure, before the conversation turns to weightier matters — e.g., sex, the lonely meaninglessness of existence and Trump’s latest tweet.”

In terms of story writing, this warming up the crowd is how we get our readers in. We want to give them a chance to get to know their way around the setting; to be comfortable (or uncomfortable, think Humbert Humbert) with the narrative voice; to understand the desires and obstacles the characters face. We do some world building and we give the reader a little epiphany of yearning; that is, we let them see what the characters want, and, hopefully hook them into the quest, be it for love, understanding, or a seat at the table.

Consider this opening from Lorrie Moore’s story, “Debarking,” from her collection Bark:

Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn’t get his wedding ring off. His finger had swelled doughily around it—a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition, he said to friends. “I’m going to have to have my entire finger surgically removed.” The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything he had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew) cinched the blousy fat of his finger, which had grown around it like a fucking happy vine.

Readers are dished up conflict, desire, voice, tone and character, all in a few sentences. I am so ready to follow Ira into his story.

“Don’t leave some guests nodding their heads and pretending they know what’s going on. Often, clarification is required.”

Of course this doesn’t mean dumb your story down; it means trust your reader and be a good host. Make the reader feel welcome in the story world. Remember there are about a zillion other places she could focus her attention. Make certain you give the reader a solid sense of place, of character, of desire and obstacles. Ask yourself as you write: what does my reader need to know, what does she want to know now, and now, and now? Chances are if the reader wants to know something more, the story wants to know that as well.

Consider this, from the start of Junot Diaz’s story, “Miss Lora,” from This is How You Lose Her:

In those last weeks when he finally became too feeble to run away, he refused to talk to you or your mother. Didn’t utter a single word until he died. Your mother did not care. She loved him and prayed over him and talked to him like he was still OK. But it wounded you, that stubborn silence. His last fucking days and he wouldn’t say a word. You’d ask him something straight up, How are you feeling today, and Rafa would just turn his head. Like you all didn’t deserve an answer. Like no one did.

You were at the age where you could fall in love with a girl over an expression, a gesture. That’s what happened with your girlfriend, Paloma—she stooped to pick up her purse, and your heart flew out of you.

That’s what happened with Miss Lora too.

Readers get all the information we need through language, and point-of-view. The second person narration lets us know that the details of this story are too painful for the narrator to look at straight on. The loss of his brother is still raw. The narrator tells us that during the time of this story, he was as yet unformed, he was emotionally vulnerable, he could fall in love at the merest gesture, and maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t blame him for his choices. This is a story in which the narrator seeks redemption and everything about this passage sets us up, asks us not to judge harshly because, man, he’s beating himself up and excusing himself at the same time. Basically the narrator is telling us: I was grieving my dead brother, I was susceptible to women, and Miss Lora came along. What’d you expect me to do?

“The sad truth is, no one cares what you have to say; they care about what they have to say. Deep down, people want to feel they’ve been heard.”

So this tip deserves a little more radical unpacking. Obviously if you’re writing a story you cannot do less ‘talking,’ but you can absolutely do less telling. By keeping your characters in action, by writing scenes, by letting characters talk to one another, you are listening to your story. It’s through action and dialogue that we come to learn the most about our characters and give our readers an opportunity to learn about them as well. It is through action, through letting them loose in the story world, that characters reveal their truest selves.

The second half of this tip, about people wanting to feel heard, really comes down to the very reason I read. I want to recognize myself in the actions of the characters. I want to feel known. When I read about a character’s missteps, foibles, idiocy, and yearnings, and I recognize myself in the nuances, then I don’t feel like such a freak in my own life.

In Alice Munro’s story, “The Moons of Jupiter,” from the collection The Moons of Jupiter, the narrator is thinking back on how she behaved as a young woman, excoriating her parents to her friends, and how her own daughter must now roundly criticize her when speaking with her partner, Don. As she walks behind Don and her daughter she thinks:

I looked at Don walking ahead. A tall ascetic-looking boy, with a St. Francis cap of black hair, a precise fringe of beard. What right did he have to hear about me, to know things I myself had probably forgotten? I decided that his beard and hairstyle were affected.

Yes, I confess, I too am that petty.

“We all know what society says we’re not supposed to talk about at a dinner party. Religion. Politics. Salaries. And yet these topics should be fair game. What’s a dinner party if not a laboratory of ideas, plus permission to eat cheese?”

Of course our stories should embrace complicated topics—loneliness, existential angst, trauma, our place at the table and hence in the world, how we love and fail to love—but these don’t have to be writ large. A scene with a young girl watching her mother dance with a stranger is plenty to reveal the universal worries of childhood. What is love? Where do I fit in? And, you certainly shouldn’t try to fix the world or your character. Writing with an agenda is never a good idea. People are complex. Writing a story to prove your point, rather than to illuminate, feels too narrow.

Now for the cheese eating! Feels to me that’s a euphemism for naughty behavior—engaging in something you wouldn’t normally do, a rules-don’t-apply-at-a-dinner-party attitude. Though why eating cheese falls into that category, I don’t know. I would think it might be drinking Ouzo. For Pete’s sake, please let your characters drink Ouzo! Well-behaved dinner parties and stories are hardly memorable.

Jim Shepard’s terrific story, “Wall-to-Wall Counseling,” from the collection The World to Come, does both, as the story embraces complicated topics and allows its characters to act out. (Since I can’t quote the entire story here, you should stop reading this essay and go find it right now.) Here’s an “eating cheese” moment:

My sister was the kind of kid who whatever we were doing always looked like she wanted to be doing something else. Once when she was fifteen I had to tell her to cheer up when we were snorting cocaine.

“The most memorable conversations are a product of guests who dare to provoke, titillate and argue.”

See item above! Don’t make all of your characters too civilized. Stories need rebels. As Jim Shepard said, “No one likes bad behavior and conflict in fiction except your readers.”

In “Cold Little Bird,” by Ben Marcus, included in The Best American Short Stories, 2016, ed. Junot Diaz, a father is perplexed by his young son’s sudden rejection of jovial teasing, hugs, and kisses.  The father, Martin, does not handle it well. He argues with his wife:

“And you like it? That’s what you’re saying? You like this?”

His voice had gone up. He had lost control for a minute there, and, as per motherfucking usual, it was a deal-breaker. Rachel put up her hand, and she was gone. From the other room, he heard her say, “I’m not going to talk to you when you’re like this.”

Okay, he thought. Goodbye. We’ll talk some other time when I’m not like this, AKA never.

“It’s amazing how much more relaxed a political argument becomes when you understand that you don’t have to — and in fact won’t — ‘win.’”

Don’t feel you have to bring your stories around to a sweeping resolution. Life doesn’t work that way. You’ll never convince your NRA card-carrying Aunt Kelly Ann to change her politics, just as she won’t convert you. In a short story your characters won’t be healed from their trauma, or gain deep understanding and acceptance of their philandering husband’s motivations, or come to an epiphanic understanding that the world is indeed complex but bends toward love. The best we can hope for in life, and the best we can do in our stories, is to notice the small glimmers. So, don’t necessarily keep arguments low key, but do turn down the volume on the need to win, the need to resolve all the conflicts.

In Tessa Hadley’s beautiful story, “One Saturday Morning,” from the collection Bad Dreams and Other Stories, Carrie, a girl in the confusing liminal space between childhood and adulthood, sees her mother dancing with a family friend who has been recently widowed. The story ends in the midst of a dinner party, with Carrie, her brother Paul, and their mother in the boy’s bedroom.

The three of them bent together over the insect, whose frail folded wings were transparent and dark-veined. Its long green body curled and uncurled lasciviously.

— What an extraordinary creature, their mother said. Pressing close against her, Carrie breathed in her perfume, and the wine and smoke on her hot skin; the white dress smelled of ironing. Paul blew gently at the insect, which swayed on its threads of legs. Their happiness in that moment was almost too much—its precariousness squeezed Carrie’s chest like a tight band.

The details of hot skin, wine and smoke; the sensual movements of the insect; and the tableau of the trio crystallizes the confusion and yearning palpable throughout the story. Hadley gives us an absolutely true moment, a clear moment, without ‘fixing’ or ‘winning.’

“Go for empathy…Try leading with a personal story.”

This tip harkens back to the show-don’t-tell adage. Let readers see characters in their quotidian struggles and they are far more likely to feel emotions. Going for empathy is crucial. If the raison d’être of art is to transfer emotion from one person’s heart to another’s, then it is crucial that we show, not tell. It’s also crucial that we don’t name the emotions our characters are feeling. Remember, it’s not our job to make our readers watch us cry. Scrub your writing of words like sad, tears, angry, and happy. Instead reveal the emotions through gesture, how they show up in the body, and in dialogue. Or, when the emotions run hot in your story, try rendering them in cool, precise language.

Consider this passage from Jhumpa Lahiri’s story, “A Temporary Matter,” from the collection Interpreter of Maladies, in which a husband and wife barely exist as a couple in the wake of a stillbirth. Early in the story, Lahiri reveals the source of strain in the marriage in swift, clean language.

A member of the staff had found him somehow among the identical convention rooms and handed him a stiff square of stationery. It was only a telephone number, but Shukumar knew it was the hospital. When he returned to Boston it was over. The baby had been born dead. Shoba was lying on a bed, asleep, in a private room so small there was barely enough space to stand beside her, in a wing of the hospital they hadn’t been to on the tour for expectant parents. Her placenta had weakened and she’d had a cesarean, though not quickly enough.

This stark summary is from the husband’s point of view. The details like the stiffness of the paper, and the restrictive space of the hospital room, make this telling feel scenic. I feel the paper, I see the room and Shoba lying on the bed. The heart-breaking truth of “not quickly enough,” is scrubbed of sentimentality. The short, declarative sentence, “The baby had been born dead,” aside from the wonder of putting those two words— born/dead— next to one another, is really the only way to convey such tremendous loss without falling in a hopeless and helpless morass of emotion.  And, of course, this passage of clear prose stirs deep feelings of understanding and heartbreak in me.

“To ensure that a guest’s story becomes truly interesting, just ask two questions over and over: what and why. What exactly happened? What did that feel like? Seek emotional specifics. And then: Why? Why is this anecdote important? This is where the guest’s most thoughtful connection to a story lies.”

Once you’ve gotten a draft of your story on the page (congratulations by the way) and you begin revising, keep asking yourself: what and why. The questions address the external conflict—the plot—and the internal conflict, the interior landscape of your characters. What is she doing? Why is she acting that way? What is the motivation behind the action? That is where the story lies.

“Gifted,” by Sharon Solwitz, included in The Best American Short Stories, 2016, ed. Junot Diaz, is the story of a woman separated from her family in the midst of a crisis. She’s stuck in London on 9/11, unable to fly home to see her young son, Nate, who is in the hospital, receiving a bad diagnosis. Terribly rattled and lonely, she confides in a co-worker.

That night the group from the Chicago office went to a pub. They didn’t know about Nate, she didn’t want to tell them, nor did she want to be with them without their knowing. So, she arranged another solo dinner with Edward…he listened while she told him the facts of Nate’s illness and tried to describe her state of mind, and he seemed to feel for her. His sister’s boy had had leukemia at two, and at six now he was doing fine. Thank you, Edward. He loved cricket and fifties-era Hollywood movies, and his ordinariness was bubble wrap for her sore mind, separating her in London from the terrors of Chicago…. that night, unable to sleep, she put on her robe, padded down the softly lit hall to his room, and knocked on his door. It was two a.m. Sex was rushed, awkward, but her own room yawned with confusion and terror. She put her arms around Edward, breathed his unfamiliar set of odors, slept and woke and slept.

Solwitz stares unblinkingly at a crushing situation. She asks what and why and her character responds by padding down the hall in her robe, away from crushing confusion and terror of her lonely hotel room.  Through action and thought (the what and the why) her character shows herself to be terribly human.

“Small talk need not be soporific. Before the dinner party, try to find some recent news items or weird science stories that people most likely haven’t heard about. Did you know that music is beneficial to cats undergoing surgery?”

Embrace the quirk. Don’t make your characters too bland or too horrible. How much more interesting if your murderer is also a home brew expert! Or, what if the NICU nurse raises chinchillas? Or, what if the expert tailor, who makes women feel and look beautiful in her designs, body shames them when they come in for fittings?

Matt Sumell’s stories regularly surprise. For example, look at this non sequitur in his story, “Toast,” from the collection Making Nice, in which a bored couple watches animal documentaries.

We were watching this one where they have slow-motion aerial footage of a wolf chasing a mother and baby gazelle all over Mongolia for like ten minutes, and sometime early on the mother and baby got split up, so then it was just the wolf and the little gazelle, but the little gazelle could really move, I mean, really move, so they’re zigging and zagging and leaping and then just flat-out going until the little gazelle gets tired and collapses to the ground and the wolf eats him up, just fuckin’ rips him apart, but then later on we find out the wolf eventually starves to death anyway, and then this baby elephant goes blind in a sandstorm but continues following his mother’s footprints using only his sense of smell, only he follows them in the wrong direction so he dies, too, when all of a sudden I feel her scooching closer to me on the couch and I looked at her, and without even turning away from the TV she out of nowhere says she wants to try anal sex.

“Asking questions can get a guest to reveal something fascinating about herself. But a quick way to prevent that is to give her possible answers. ‘Why did you quit law school — was it too boring?’ Leave out the guess.”

Don’t go for the easy answer in your stories. Allow yourself to be surprised. Provoke new details, stay in scenes longer, let your characters talk too much when you’re drafting, linger. Give the scene a chance to make a new discovery.

Grace Paley’s story, “Wants,” included in The Collected Stories, is so brief and so wide. A many-years divorced couple run into one another at the library and excavate their marital troubles. He accuses, she considers.

Don’t be bitter, I said. It’s never too late.

No, he said with a great deal of bitterness. I may get a sailboat. As a matter of fact I have money down on an eighteen-foot two-rigger. I’m doing well this year and can look forward to better. But as for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.

He had had a habit throughout the twenty-seven years of making a narrow remark which, like a plumber’s snake, could work its way through the ear down the throat, halfway to my heart. He would then disappear, leaving me choking with equipment. What I mean is, I sat down on the library steps and he went away.

 And then, she does a little self-excavation. Some paragraphs go by as the character ponders what happened, who she is, and who she wants to be.

Just this morning I looked out the window to watch the street for a while and saw that the little sycamores the city had dreamily planted a couple of years before the kids were born had come that day to the prime of their lives.

Well! I decided to bring those two books back to the library. Which proves that when a person or an event comes along to jolt or appraise me I can take some appropriate action, although I am better known for my hospitable remarks.

 The woman stares at the trees with her most generous point of view, and then turns inward. After her ex-husband’s derisive remark, Paley’s character discovers resilience. Always, always write with an ear for the nuance and subtleties in your character’s actions and responses. Imagine the wonderful opportunities. Not assuming means being open to all possibilities, around the dinner table and in your stories.

Grateful readers and sated guests feel heard, known, delighted, and moved.  Which is what we aim for, right? Because, after all, we want them to come again.

NATALIE SERBER is the author of Community Chest, (Two Sylvias Press), and Shout Her Lovely Name, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, a summer reading selection from O, the Oprah Magazine, and an Oregonian Top 10 Book of the Pacific Northwest. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Zyzzyva, The Greensboro Review, The Bellingham Review, Gulf Coast, Inkwell, and Hunger Mountain.  Essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Oprah Magazine, The Huffington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian, The Rumpus, Salon, and Fourth Genre.  Natalie hosts dinner parties in Portland, Oregon.