What makes a story a story?
It’s taken me several years to establish even the fuzziest definition of a short story. I didn’t understand in college when professors told me certain stories were character sketches and vignettes rather than stories.
Recently I read a story that was otherwise good, but left me wondering if it really was a story. I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately and most of them end in some kind of fading out. You know the ending: so much left unsaid, hints at what might happen off the page. Characters quietly walk into the distance or stare at some object. I’m guilty of writing these endings, too. While some writers earn this fade-out ending, others don’t, leaving the feeling that they were stumped and gave up. Or perhaps they want subtlety. In an effort to avoid heavy-handed writing, they withhold.
I’ve read two different pieces this last week that have left me thinking about this phenomenon in fiction. It’s not new, by any means. Aimee Bender references Michael Chabon’s term “quiet epiphany” in an interview with Willow Springs (scroll down the page for the file). I think she gets at the crux of the problem when she says that writers give a character a symbolic action that is unearned, “the external representation of her quiet epiphany” that doesn’t match up with the (incomplete) internal change. She says it better than I can paraphrase (on pages 6-7 of the PDF file) so check it out.
Pinckney Benedict wrote about something similar in a blog entry for Red Room called the “Vignette vs. Story: An Apocalyptic Arc.” He references the Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie imitators and quiet apocalypses. In short, he likens a story to an apocalypse:
A story, on the other hand, involves apocalypse. I’m pretty specific by what I mean by the use of that word: I mean a revelation (the literal meaning of the word apocalypse; a “lifting of the veil”), and a very specific type of revelation: the destruction of an old order, followed by a time (however brief, even a moment, a flicker) of disorder and chaos, and the replacement of the old order by a new and entirely different order (though that new order may in its external details greatly resemble the old).
I think what’s been creeping up on me in so many stories I’ve read lately is this sense that not much happens and not much changes. I like Benedict’s idea that there must be a new order. It doesn’t have to be sci-fi in nature, but something has to shift in the story, some part of the characters world has to change in a way that’s irreversible.
Some stories have great characters, beautiful language, and even a hint of subtle change. But is that enough? Can a character staring off in the distance stand in for internal change, revelation, realization, epiphany, etc.?