Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular


Book by Rust Hills

Annotation by Kat Kambes

Rust Hills quickly lays out his thematic impetus in Writing In General and the Short Story in Particular. On the first page he states “only two things can be said about the nature of the short story.” He quickly points out that “a short story tells of something that happened to someone” and “…will demonstrate a more harmonious relationship of all its aspects than will any other literary art form…” This philosophy drives the books content, as the individual chapters each focus upon an aspect that Hills is quick to point out as an aspect, part of the necessary “harmonious relationships of all its aspects.”

Hills attempts to pull out the threads that make the cohesive whole, beginning with the story creating a change in behavior of the character. He drives this more explicitly to note that character does not really change, but that we are revealed something new about that character or witness the character understanding something new about himself. This is brought about through moving action. He explores the ideas of fixed action, something that is “constant (or repeatable) before the story happens,” as belonging to the beginning, so that the everyday, fixed quality of the character, will allow us to witness the “changed” character.

I particularly enjoyed the concept of “fork in the road” that was formative to the point where the real story is. These are events for the short story writer to focus on. The point of no return, where the character can no longer turn back. There has historically been much discussion about this point, the climax, the crisis point, or the crux and what is really driving here is that this moment bears a dynamic weight, that some truth be revealed. It might also be considered the “turning point” or reversal, but clearly the peak moment of change.

What Hills definitely approaches that is pronounced from the many books on writerly skills that I have encountered, is not the concept of internal conflict, which we have seen specified, but the astute further rendering of this idea: “…to be effective the situation of the conflict must be developed so that the forces or weights or values on each side are more or less balanced.” Stressing that the development of these forces, which heighten the conflict create more difficulty for the character. But this only takes us to the question of tension, in which Hills uses a definition close to is Latin root – tensus, meaning “stretch.” He states “Tension in fiction has that effect: of something that is being stretched taut until it must snap.”
Hills delves into character and challenges the writer to really know the character, the way their energy works, the abstract and mechanical intelligence, the sociability, habits, lifestyle, ad infinitum. It is through really knowing the character that an understanding of the character’s motivation can be made manifest. He states “…motive seems to create a sort of potential for movement in a character, to seem almost that part of character which potentially is plot.” He talks about using stress, and understanding the way this stress is expressed or suppressed in a character. We seem to know people more fully after going through a stressful situation with them.

As regards plot Hills states that “Plot…is never there for its own sake…. Any action in a story must be justified by its contribution to the whole.” He discusses at length the importance of selectivity in the short story form, how the selection process is crucial not just to characterization, but to setting, and that each of the aspects must subordinate themselves to the whole of the piece.

He does some exploration into the unique sections of the story, beginning, middle and ending and spends a good deal of time on point-of-view where he discusses both their individual usefulness as well as their limitations.
Hill was a long-time editor for Esquire magazine and strove heartily to bring the “literary” short story back into its framework. He spends a good deal of time extolling the virtues of literary endeavor and talks at length about the changing landscape of literature in our times.

This work of exploration on technique in writing the short story has at its core the perception of someone who has seen how the best of stories work. By this I mean, how all the moving parts fit together. For this reason, the book’s approach is different. Since Hills was an editor, he has a detached distance from the work. I previously read another book on craft written by editors Renni Browne and Dave King entitled Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which was much more nuts and bolts, dealing with specific issues of tense, beats, mechanics, proportion. These were all issues of practicality.

What Hills strives for is a deep level of “understanding” in the overall cohesiveness of the moving parts, which he explicitly sees as being in motion, action being a key concept to the unfolding nature of the whole.


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