Exploring the art of prose



Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, Rust Hills
Mariner Books, 2000

Originally published in 1977, this book examines the elements of craft, with an emphasis on the short story, examining the components of a successful short story and how the short story differs from the novel. A dense book, written in short sections that lead from one to the next, this is a book best read from start to finish, as writer and editor Rust Hills builds on his ideas as he moves through the book.

Several sections are of particular interest. A section entitled “The Inevitability of Retrospect” is marvelous in its analysis of a the story moves down a path, using an illustration of a branch. In the diagram, when you move from the trunk of the tree to a leaf at the end of the branch, there are choices to be made as to the path to get there. But once you’re there, and you look back, there is only one path. Hills goes on to say:

A story should be like that. When you begin a story and while you’re reading it, it should seem as if you’re moving from left to right: alternatives to the character’s fate and to the plot’s action seemopen, possible, available. But when you’ve finished the story and look back, the action should seem inevitable, as it you’d moved from right to left.

Another terrific, and thought-provoking, section is that on “Pattern in Plot.” Here, Hills considers the architecture of a story and how a short story is often more carefully constructed than a novel. He discusses the ways in which “the sequences of the action [can be] arranged in a way that establishes a certain “order” or “architecture”—of balance, or symmetry, or even asymmetry—in the narrative structure.” Scenes can be played off each other. Two quieter scenes can bookend an intense scene. A scene at the beginning can mirror a scene at the end. And so on. The key, though, Hills insists, is that “pattern ‘works’ in a story only when it is related to the story’s basic conception.”

And even though Hills resists providing a definition for a short story, the following passage is one of the clearest explanations of just that:

Something happens, however slight it may be—and it isn’t something that happened over and over before and is going to happen again and again in the future. It is assumed that the events of a story take place only once, that whatever “happens” to the character as a result of the action of the story alters or “moves” him in such a way, again however slight it may be, that he would never experience or do the same thing in exactly the same way.