Short stories and novels share some attributes. But among many other unique attributes, including a prejudice against having multiple-viewpoint characters, short stories rarely extend beyond a period of days or months, and this constraint tends to discourage not just the kinds of inspired digressions that great novels can include successfully but also determine the types of structures a story versus a novel can inhabit. The compression itself requires words to carry more weight, and for sentences to perform more work. Many wonderful novelists never learn these feats of compression—or do not possess the skill set—necessary to make their short stories come to life.
For better or worse, here are two of my own beginnings, in depth and in brief, and the rationale behind my decisions—as well as some additional analysis that goes beyond the beginning. At the end of this feature you will find some exercise challenges, based on the stories. The stories are available to read online, as indicated.
THE THIRD BEAR
Read “The Third Bear” online at Clarkesworld
POV: Third person, limited omniscient
Setting: Vaguely medieval European
Inspiration: Becoming exasperated with the stylized aspects of fairy tales combined with a moment of epiphany: thinking I had seen some beast staring back at me from a dark wood.
Description: A strange and horrific creature comes to terrorize the inhabitants of an isolated village, sparking actions both foolish and brave by the villagers. One villager, Horley, does his best to fight back, even visiting a witch in the forest for help, but how do you fight something inexplicable.
First Paragraph: It made its home in the deep forest near the village of Grommin, and all anyone ever saw of it, before the end, would be hard eyes and the dark barrel of its muzzle. The smell of piss and blood and shit, and bubbles of saliva and half-eaten food. The villagers called it the Third Bear because they had killed two bears already that year. But, near the end, no one really thought of it as a bear, even though the name had stuck, changed by repetition and fear and slurring through blood-filled mouths to Theeber. Sometimes it even sounded like “seether” or “seabird.”
Point of View: The first thing you may notice is that the point of view/voice isn’t coming from a particular character. It’s more removed, although not entirely omniscient. As the story progresses, the point of view hovers around Horley and his actions, and never includes information that wouldn’t be known by the villagers as a whole. This approach is important to the story for a few reasons:
- Although the Third Bear isn’t technically the main character—antagonist but not protagonist—this creature does loom over everyone in the story, and thus must be introduced first. Therefore, the story cannot begin in a particular point of view.
- The story is about fate to some extent, and this opening reinforces the inexorable nature of events in the story by placing all possible characters in danger. If the story begins with a wide scope, not attached to a particular character, then in theory no one is safe, since the story can end by panning back out.
- The tone of this particular point of view supports the extreme depictions of violence later in the story, by being matter of fact. A less detached viewpoint might have rendered the scenes of violence melodramatic.
- Why the “third bear?” Well, because Third Bear is “just right” and the story is meant to poke holes in fairy tales like machine-gun fire through cheesecloth.
Narrative: In terms of the needs of a short story, the first paragraph condenses or dispenses with quite a few dramatic elements. Two bears have been killed already that year, yet this third bear is clearly much more of a threat as the villager have been unable to kill it yet—“near the end” suggests perhaps it cannot be killed. The paragraph sets up the essential conflict of the story—villagers versus a monster—with their survival on the line. The story wastes no words showing the villagers’ first encounter with Third Bear or explaining how this creature is different from the first two bears. Neither is there unnecessary buildup to revealing aspects of the bear-creature itself. In terms of story, conflict, and description, the reader is in the middle of the action from the very beginning. A more leisurely approach, one I would consider uninspired, might “prologue” the situation by focusing on an individual encounter between villager and “bear,” and the writer might even think that by dramatizing action, he or she has contributed to the forward movement of the plot, but this is not necessarily the case.
Description and Setup: For purposes of a story about fate and the inexplicable, in which I may have hinted at the ending in the first paragraph, the description of the third bear—the reveal, in a sense—is potentially hazardous early in the story. Part of the mystery will revolve around divulging ever more details about the third bear. Therefore, it is important that an image of the creature accretes or coalesces over time. Balanced against this requirement is a potentially conflicting imperative: any view of the creature must be visceral, to adequately convey the danger to the villagers. The solution I found was to focus on a view of the bear as the villagers would perceive it in their last moments—in fragments that convey an overwhelming sense of the physicality of the beast. The paragraph then sets the hook of aghast curiosity deeper with the implication of an uncanny element: “no one really thought of it as a bear near the end.” In a sense, this is description as action. Even though the reader receives a summary of the situation, he or she is also given a smidgeon of half scene in the form of the visceral quality of the typical encounter of villager with creature. Action does not necessarily require a full scene to push a story forward.
Details of the Setting: “The Third Bear” also deals with isolation and what people do when they have no recourse but one another during a desperate situation. The first paragraph reinforces these ideas in a very specific way. Third Bear is a claustrophobic presence at the paragraph’s opening and ending—almost as if you are within the creature’s grasp—and the village is depicted as isolated. Just the village name is mentioned, and only a “deep forest” is given as a nearby landmark. The village details are otherwise devoid of larger identifiers: no region, no country name, no time period. The village, as described in the opening of the story, has become unmoored, an island unto itself.
Style/Use of Language: Although I am known for a rich, highly descriptive style, “The Third Bear” uses a somber, more monochromatic approach. You’ll note few adjectives and no adverbs in the opening paragraph. The emphasis is on simple nouns and verbs, with a few strong, immediate nouns like “piss,” “blood,” and “saliva” that snarl through the paragraph like Third Bear savaging its prey. The only descriptors—“deep,” “hard,” “dark,” and “blood-filled”—reinforce the general mood. The simplicity of the word choice, however, is paired with long, fairly complex sentences. The approach is meant to support the medieval setting without seeming like historical re-creation and to suggest a tone of authenticity; the narrator, however distant, appears to have authority, to have knowledge of the incidents about to be related within the story.
The end of the paragraph also includes a somewhat obscure effect about which I am unduly pleased but that may be of less significance to most readers—although it is important not to disregard the subconscious effect of technique on readers. Following “slurring through blood-filled mouths to Theeber,” is the sentence “Sometimes it even sounded like ‘seether’ or ‘seabird.’ ” These garblings in “Third Bear” are not, in fact, random. In addition to the idea of trying to find the true name of something that is bear-like but not truly bear as a way of understanding or combating it, the sentence conveys two important elements in the story. The devolution to “seether” fits the mood and thrust of the story. It’s a situation seething/stewing without coming to a boil or climax—people trapped in an impossible situation, going around in circles.
The further devolution to “seabird” in the mouths of the dying evokes, in a sense, the release in death from the attentions of the third bear—a kind of giving up of consciousness, of disappearing, bodiless, into the sky. But it is also an image at odds with everything else in the paragraph. The image of a bird in flight, a bird not of the forest, is also an image of escape, something the victims can only have in death but that the living still hope for: some way out of the trap. It is a kind of soaring delivered as counter-point to the earth-bound hopelessness of the rest, an upward lilt in a paragraph full of downward agony.
The Execution and Ending: The story will go on to document the village’s attempt to deal with Third Bear. The fantastical elements of the story are introduced gradually, in the proper context and perspective, and they are also treated in a matter-of-fact way, which only makes Horley’s honest efforts more sympathetic and tragic. Eventually, the village descends into chaos, and Horley perishes when he goes out to distract the bear while his family escapes. In doing so, Horley discovers that the bear-thing is creating a pattern of severed heads in a cave. There is a creepy and intelligent purpose to the murders—just not a motivation Horley can understand. Nor will the reader: “Spring came, finally, and the streams unthawed. The birds returned, the trees regained their leaves, and the frogs began to sing their mating songs. In the deep forest, [the witch’s] old wooden door was half buried in moss and dirt, leading nowhere, all light fading from it. On an overgrown hill, there lay an empty cave with nothing but a few old bones scattered across the dirt floor. The third bear had finished its pattern and moved on, but for the remaining villagers he would always be there.”
Some things are not knowable. Some things will always be beyond our understanding. Some things are part of patterns—or even seasons—that have nothing to do with us. But they change us irrevocably anyway. The surprise of the story is simply that it ultimately exists beyond the concerns of its human characters, and thus the ending and the beginning sync, with the beginning revealed to be in an odd way less horrific in light of the ending. This is the natural order of things, according to the story, and what is natural cannot be truly evil…or can it?
Other Approaches: How would the story change if I had begun differently. Here are two other possible ways to begin the story. What do I gain by using them and what do I lose?
- We knew the third bear was wrong as soon as we saw it. We knew it was different than the other two bears we had killed. Still, I thought we would survive it. Our village had survived wars and brigands and famine. Surely it could survive a rogue bear. But as it got closer and closer to winter and the bear had killed more and more people, I began to wonder if I was wrong.
- The first time the bear struck, Horley organized a search party and found the body. The man had been the miller’s son, strong and comely. Now he was a mass of blood and flesh so torn that he seemed pushed down into moss, to be part of the forest floor. Horley had seen the results of bear attacks before. The villagers had killed two marauding bears already that year. This was different.
- Think about how the different beginnings change not just the viewpoint but the distance between the reader and events. How does that change in distance affect what kinds of information can be conveyed naturally? How does it affect our impression of the bear? Is tension is enhanced or decreased by a more street-level perspective? How do these stories end as opposed to the story I told? What is the trade-off?
Read “The Situation” at Geekdad online.
POV: First person
Setting: Vaguely contemporary office building, with surreal biotech touches
Inspiration: Being laid off from a job, and needing emotional closure
Description: An employee of an anonymous company that makes fantastical creatures writes a report that describes the ever-worsening details of his employment and the degradation of a project he is helping to manage. Office politics of the kind typical in contemporary U.S. businesses factor heavily in the plot. An ensemble cast of fellow employees and the friction between them provides the drama.
First Paragraph: How It Began: Degradation of Existing Processes. My Manager was extremely thin, made of plastic, with paper covering the plastic. They had always hoped, I thought, that one day her heart would start, but her heart remained a dry leaf that drifted in her rib cage, animated to lift and fall only by her breathing. Sometimes, when my Manager was angry, she would become so hot that that paper covering her would ignite, and the plastic beneath would begin to melt. I didn’t know what to say in such situations. It seemed best to say nothing and avert my gaze. Over time, the runneled plastic of her arms became a tableau of insane images, leviathans and tall ships rising out of the whirling, and stranger things still. I would stare at her arms so I did not have to stare at her face. I never knew her name. We were never allowed to know our Manager’s name. (Some called her their “Damager,” though.)
Point of View: Although I’ve used a first-person narrator for “The Situation,” the nature of the story means that the narrator is theoretically constrained by the form, and characterization occurs within that constraint. The narrator is filing a report of some kind—a complaint, an account with the specific purpose to document “the situation.” For this reason, the narrator is not likely to suddenly give the reader a huge amount of personal information up front. As the story progresses and the narrator loses some of his dedication to the form he has chosen or decides personal details are relevant, more clues about the narrator’s life, beliefs, and personality will become clear. But here, at the beginning, the narrator’s focus is elsewhere. Given the surreal quality of the story, this approach to point of view also allows the strangeness of the company and its workers to stand out in sharp relief, unencumbered by the details of the narrator’s personal life.
In this kind of scenario, you must give the reader clues about the narrator through what is being described, in this case the Manager. For example, by the end of the first paragraph we know that the narrator is an employee at a company where something has gone wrong (Degradation of Existing Processes). We know that his Manager is angry with him and that he doesn’t think this is fair. However, we can also assume that what has gone wrong is linked to the Manager’s anger. Further, we know that the company is fairly dehumanizing—the narrator doesn’t even know his Manager’s name. We can also intuit that whatever “the situation” is or was, it must have been traumatic for the narrator to devote his time to writing an actual report. The narrator clearly fears his Manager as well.
At the same time, the narrator can be petty—the aside about the nickname of the “Damager” isn’t necessarily relevant information, and definitely conveys a subjectivity at odds with a report. “Damager” is clearly the narrator’s attempt to influence our opinion of whatever happens next, to put himself in a positive light. Also influencing our opinion is the shadowy “They” of “They had always hoped…that one day her heart would start.” Who is “They?” The best answer is the “They” of intraoffice gossip, thus introducing the idea that the narrator may sincerely believe he is reporting objective truth but already failing to do so.
Given that the story includes the narrator’s coworkers, opening “The Situation” with a description of the Manager supplies the expectation that the Manager will provide an anchor, or cohesion, perhaps even serve as a framing device or organizational device. And, in fact, the story ends with the actions of the Manager, and that relationship weaves through the narrative in a way that the other relationships do not. Although the other employees are the instruments of the narrator’s misery, the Manager in a sense provides the spark.
Narrative: What to make of a manager made of plastic, with a dry leaf for a heart? You might be inclined to take that description figuratively, and thus I follow up with a reference to heat melting the plastic and igniting the paper. In fantastical fiction, giving weight and physicality to a description can ensure readers do not interpret reality as mere metaphor.
Unlike “The Third Bear” example, which uses matter-of-fact realism, “The Situation” plunges the reader into utter strangeness immediately. There is a definite moment of adjustment for readers. They will have to take a leap of faith, to accept that what might be figurative in a different type of story about an office building will have a literal beachhead in the reality of this story. Why is it important in this case to immediately immerse the reader rather than lead him or her into this recognition by degrees? Because the precepts and tropes of my story do not match up with the expectations a reader might have for a conventional fantasy or science fictional approach to the subject matter. Therefore, to provide a more conventional opening would send the wrong message.
And yet, what is the subject of the story thus far? Something completely mundane: an office employee complaining about his manager. The “situation” thus far is familiar to almost anyone; indeed, a situation that most people can easily identify with. Without that mundane aspect, the elements of mad invention in the story would be too unanchored, too ethereal.
In support of this familiarity, note, too, the clinical approach to the section titles: “How It Began: Degradation of Existing Services.” There’s a deliberate counterpoint between the seeming objective neutrality of a title like “The Situation” and an opening subsection title like “How It Began: Degradation of Existing Processes” and the actual tone the narrator uses to describe what happened, which is meant to convey hurt and suppressed anger and sadness. This juxtaposition also highlights the disconnect between the business-speak often used by HR departments to make generic potentially dramatic situations. (The title is not something baroque like “The Mad Happenings at My Place of Employ During the Time of Walking Fish” for the same reason.)
Not only do these titles mimic business reports, they increase tension, foreshadow, and allow me to cut between scenes elegantly without the need for typical transitions. This last reason is important because some of the sections double back to past events.
Descriptions: Surreal fiction, ironically enough, almost always uses precise observation and realistic details to achieve its affects. Any close look at a Salvador Dalí painting shows a rigorous and almost traditional adherence to conveying reality…all at the service on the macro level of conveying something surprising, shocking, nonrealistic. The descriptions in “The Situation” are absurd to some degree, but they, too, depend on specific detail so that what seems like subtext poking up through the surface of the story (the Manager is heartless) is, in fact, surface detail tinged with a satirical flourish.
Whether you read further depends in part on whether the reader is willing to accept those initial absurdities, and in part that depends on how good I am at rendering those absurdities. Creating that effect in what is a static opening scene—a Manager sitting at a desk—means conveying some kind of action through description as well. For these reasons, the Manager doesn’t just have “a leaf where her heart should have been.” Instead, the Manager’s “heart remained a dry leaf that drifted in her rib cage, animated to lift and fall only by her breathing.” The Manager doesn’t just “catch on fire” when angry—the paper ignites and the plastic melts, with the consequence that weird images are burned into her arms.
Motion, then, plays a large role in this opening paragraph, and serves as a substitute for action. This motion also supports a chronological hall of mirrors that provides additional narrative depth: the protagonist is conveying the essence of not one, current meeting with the Manager, but several over a long period of time. Time’s passage also supplies movement to the story.
So what is happening in the paragraph? Not much on the surface. What’s implied underneath? A lot is happening.
Setting: “The Situation” is largely an example of how the physical strangeness of the characters and creatures described can become the setting in a surreal story. The office building itself has some quirks that I dually note, but for the most part it is the standard cubicles-and-desks space one would expect—a space deliberately blank so as not to clash with or obscure the character descriptions. But some elements that would be part of the setting in a “normal” story—like personnel files—manifest in this story as animals, and thus are pulled out of the setting to become, on some level, characters. I stepped in to describe these workplace oddities because the narrator works in this environment. Thus, it is unlikely he would describe much of a setting that was so familiar to him.
Ending: Despite most scenes focusing on the narrator’s relationship with his coworkers, the Manager and her temper are referenced again and again, until at the end, after the narrator has been fired and physically kicked out of the building, he stares up at the window of Mord’s office, “and there my Manager stood: on fire from head to toe, and no extinguishing it this time. She looked down at me, and although I could not read the expression on her face I would like to think she was happy, for a moment. Then the Mord rose behind her, roaring as he rose and rose and rose, as if he might never stop growing, to fill the entire window. A slap of a paw and my Manager jerked back out of sight. The fire spread from window to window, room to room, while the Mord raged, thrashing and fighting. Once, he stopped to stare down at me, paws against the glass. Once, he looked out into the gray sky as if searching for something. A shadow, tiny and on fire, began to drift down from the burning windows. Was it a leaf? Who could tell? By the time it reached the ground, it would have fallen away into nothing. This, then, was the situation at the time I left the company.”
From start to end, “The Situation” has fulfilled its explicit promise from the beginning to document a “situation” and its implied promise that the Manager’s relationship with the narrator will frame and define the conflict in the story. Ultimately, the Manager’s inaction, ineffectiveness, and poor decision-making doom the narrator more than any other element. The leaf that floated in her chest now floats to the ground, burning up. The narrator’s situation has also been her situation.
Other Approaches: How radically does a story change depending on the method of telling? Here are two ways I could have started the story…
- He hated his manager, who he called his Damager—a nickname he spread like a virus whenever he talked to anyone else in the company, although he’d deliver it with a smile, only joking. But it was true he hated her. No matter how good his ideas, she always shot them down. If not for his terror at what Human Resources could do to him, he would have long ago reached across the desk and plucked the leaf that floated inside her empty chest cavity, held it, crumbling in his hand, and watched her plastic frame tremble with the knowledge that her life was his to do with what he wished.
- My employee was extremely insubordinate, always disobeying my direct orders and making products he had not been asked to make. This is what caused the situation—that and the way he would defy me in person, to my face. I tried to keep my temper, but I was not made to be calm or patient. This may have been a defect in my creation, but surely the company had made me this way for a reason? I could always feel the timing mechanism that controlled my heart—a leaf, so delicate, so ephemeral—floating back and forth, and this made me angrier still: that the core of me should be so vulnerable, so exposed. It made me seek control in shameful ways: I cut myself, I gouged and curled the knife through my plastic flesh because I could, because it did not hurt when it should hurt. But my employee had no empathy for any of this, or the pressures on me from my own bosses. To him, I was just an impediment to his ambition. I was damaged.
Who tells a story and what he or she emphasizes, what he or she remembers, and how he or she typifies other human beings can make enormous differences even when relating the same events. The narrator’s multipurpose function is one you should hold close as you write and revise to achieve the strongest storytelling effects.
THE CHALLENGE FOR YOU
Once you have read “The Third Bear” and “The Situation” online, consider doing one or more of the following writing exercises, which reference some items in the Writing Exercise section. Inhabiting these stories from the inside out will tell you something about your own approaches to fiction.
- Have the witch in the “The Third Bear” relate the events of the story as if telling them to a friend. What was left out of my version of the story?
- Pick a scene from “The Situation” and rewrite it from the viewpoint of the Manager or Mord. How does this change your view of the narrator of my version?
- Rewrite a scene from “The Third Bear” or “The Situation” as close as possible to the original, using only your memory of the story, without referring back to the existing text. (How did it differ from my original? What choices did you make that you think are better?)
- Read a scene from “The Situation” or “The Third Bear” aloud, and note anything that doesn’t sound right read aloud. Revise the scene accordingly and compare. Do these changes improve the story on the page or simply constitute a better version for reading aloud?
- Take something from either story that is only described in passing, and provide a full description. How would this full description add to the story? And how would you need to change the story to make it of use?