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Turning Your Anecdote into a Short Story: Part 2

16 April, 2013

In Part 1, I explained writer Shirley Jackson’s views about important issues writers should address when converting a real-life anecdote to fiction. The sample anecdote she used—which I refer to in this post—is found in Part 1.

I once wrote a short story, based on a real event when I worked at a day centre for emotionally disturbed adults. It involved three main characters—an over-bearing director, a client going off his meds, and an unhappy staff member. I made changes to ensure the real people were not identifiable.

I showed a writing consultant the story. He hated it. I entered it in a couple of short story contests. It didn’t win. Members of my writing group suggested changes so I made major revisions and later on asked a professional writer to read it. She also found it problematic.

I loved the story, so what was the problem? It was only after reading Shirley Jackson’s essay that I realised what was wrong. I had let the real events dominate instead of focusing on creating  believable fiction. Writer Alice Munro explains:

Anecdotes don’t make good stories. Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about.

Jackson suggested specifics for successfully fictionalising a real-life anecdote.

Help your readers get emotional.

An anecdote that you are part of—directly or indirectly—snags your imagination because of the emotions it evokes. Even years later, remembering the event may call up the original emotion you felt then—hate, happiness, fear, excitement.

Your readers do not have this incident-emotion link so you need to create it. Do so by conveying your characters’ feelings as well as their thoughts, actions, reactions.

Give each character a ‘face’.

Jackson used face to mean a distinct personality. A short story has limited textual space. To create distinct individuals, concentrate on what Jackson called the ‘small things’:  ‘gestures, turns of speech, automatic reactions.’

For your major characters, make them stand out by giving each one a distinct personality trait. Jackson’s example was to make a village woman self-disparaging:
‘. . . [W]hen someone praises her cakes she answers that they’re really not very good, actually; she made much, better cakes for the church fair last year; she just wishes that no one would even taste a piece of this year’s cake, because it’s really not any good at all . . . . ‘

Jackson believed that once the major personality trait was established, no more description was needed. Readers would generalise from the specific to decide if a character was likeable or not, trustworthy or not.

Small descriptors can also be used to  ‘spotlight’ minor characters. Jackson imagined the village minister having an habitual gesture when he was worried. She thought this single small gesture—covering his eyes with his hand—was more effective than giving readers a whole ‘ biography’ of character details.

Sketch some ideas.

The first step in transforming your  incident into fiction is experimentation. Jackson suggested  ‘sketching in lightly’ to discover who and what works best in terms of creating  fiction. Instead of having the village women as stage props, she characterised them, imaging them as a ‘tightly knit group, interested in their own concerns, and as resentful of outsiders as any of us.’

She believed that following a single character ‘from beginning to end’ focused a story.  You can experiment by playing with who ‘owns’ the story, and considering what perspective they may have.

A ‘what-if’ approach also allows for experimentation.  Jackson posed questions:
What if the women are quarrelling and the minister planned the village fair as an attempt to make peace? What if the rich visitor is shy and wants to be liked? What if the chauffeur is an outsider? A local man?

Limit the timeframe and support it with a backstory.

Less can be more in terms of fictional time. Jackson suggested reducing the story’s timeframe  to the ‘actual moments of the raffle’. But the story also needs sufficient ‘telling’ conversations and incidents—the backstory—to enable readers to understand the impact of the raffle. Jackson’s suggestion: Show how the village women look at the visitor’s car and what they say to each other about this.

Use foreshadowing.

Jackson stressed the importance of  ‘telegraphing’ the story’s main point. You do this by creating an early incident, and then connecting it with the final major event. Her example was to establish an early incident—the visitor buys a cake at one of the festival stalls and a village woman reacts negatively. Later, when the visitor wins the coveted quilt, the villager again reacts, an escalation from the earlier event.

Ensure your characters partake.

Jackson believed every character must in some way ‘partake’, to become an essential part of the story, someone  ‘peculiar to this story and no other.’

She imagined adding to the story a boy as a minor character. If the boy climbs a tree to watch the raffle, this adds local colour—but does nothing in terms of story-building.

But what if the boy climbs an apple tree, its branches overhanging the visitor’s car, and deliberately drops apples onto the car’s roof? Now his actions reinforce the central conflict, villagers vs. outsider. He ‘exists nowhere else in the world than in this story and this village, and it must be made clear that this is where he belongs.’

Shake, snarl, sneak

One danger in using a real-life anecdote is to retell it exactly as it happened. Jackson suggested that you seek fictional variations. Attack the original ‘the way a puppy attacks an old shoe’—‘shake it, snarl at it, sneak up on it from various angles.’ Some permutations:

  • Start at the end. The narrator could be an outsider, relating the fair event. Maybe it is an ex-villager who still loves the place but is sympathetic to the summer visitor.
  • Turn the story inside out. The visitor’s two small children could be placed on the outskirts of the fair, playing cooperatively with some village children. Focusing on the children could create a telling contrast to the adults’ behaviour.
  • Turn the story outside in. A character’s motive could be reversed. What if the visitor is determined to get the quilt, so much so that she employs ‘highhanded maneuvering’ to ensure winning it?

Jackson, Shirley (1969). ‘Experience and Fiction.’ Come Along with Me. Ed. Stanley Edgar Hyman. London: Michael Joseph.

© Marsha Durham, WritingCompanion blog, 2013

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