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Flannery O’Connor on what makes for a good short story


Considering that we’ve been considering Jane Urquhart and short stories of late, here’s a master on her craft:

The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through which can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched. 

But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them. Fiction writers who are not concerned with these concrete details are guilty of what Henry James called "weak specifications." The eye will glide over their words while the attention goes to sleep.

All the action has to be satisfactorily accounted for in terms of motivation, and there has to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, though not necessarily in that order.

A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience of meaning.

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.  

The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible. He has only a short space to do it in and he can’t do it by statement. He has to do it by showing, not by saying, and by showing the concrete — so that his problem is how to make the concrete work double time for him. In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning for the action of the story itself, and when this happens they become symbolic in the way they work.

The fiction writer states as little as possible. The reader makes this connection from things he is shown. It [the wooden leg in Good Country People] has its place on the literal level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface. It increases the story in every direction, and this is essentially the way a story escapes being short."

I like what she says about the meaning of the story being the story itself, I’ve heard this said of poems, however I don’t think this precludes being able to sum up meaning with an aptly phrased moral.

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2 Responses to “Flannery O’Connor on what makes for a good short story”

  1. Steven W. Beattie Says:

    "Fiction writers who are not concerned with these concrete details are guilty of what Henry James called ‘weak specifications.’ " While I’m loath to slam O’Connor — ever — this assertion has always bugged me. She misreads James here. When he made the comment about "weak specification" he was talking about ambiguity in "The Turn of the Screw." His assertion was that it was better to leave the matter of the ghosts ambiguous, because it is more unsettling that way. Being more concrete as to what was happening in the story would involve "weak specification," which would be less disconcerting for a reader. He was actually saying that in the case of "The Turn of the Screw," it was appropriate to be less concrete, not more so. 

  2. Fray Mollo Says:

    It may happened too much time from the moment the previous comment was made. Anyway, who cares.

    I feel somehow relieved by the fact that someone else has noted the apparent contradiction between what O’Connor and James had said about “weak specification”.

    In my opinion Henry James called the specifications “weak” not because they were vague, or poor or insufficient, which is the point O’Connor was remarking. James called them weak because by the very fact that they are specifications, that is, they specified something.

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