Tools and Rules for the Short Story Writer


Rhonda Browning White

If you have chosen to be a writer, you’ve selected a career path that requires lifelong learning. While it’s crucial to critically read literature in the genre in which you write, it’s also important to study texts on the craft of writing. Rick DeMarinis’s The Art & Craft of the Short Story is one of the few texts I’ve found dealing specifically with problems unique to short story writing. Some of the advice in this book is universal to writing in general, however it is particularly applicable to abbreviated stories. DeMarinis both begins and ends his book with a chilling confession: “I don’t know how to write a short story” (4, 224). Frightening though his beginning and ending statements may be (in between them is couched over two hundred pages of solid advice and direct examples), they are somehow freeing. Sure, there are rules to follow when writing short stories, but those rules serve as guidelines, not as binding strictures that force writers into a cookie-cutter formula of limited creativity. It also helps us realize that, whether we’re beginning writers or advanced writers with plenty of publications under our belts, we all face doubts and mysteries as we apply our minds to the first blank page of story writing.

DeMarinis gives fine advice regarding short story endings–a topic not often found in craft books. “No one can help you here. An ending takes an act of inspiration” (40). He goes on to say that he’s talking to himself, of course, but he admits that the last lines of the story are the hardest to get right. He asserts that, “Closure in short story writing has a similar function to closure in poetry. . . . the ending of a poem is like a ski jump. There’s the long accelerating downhill glide, and then, whoosh, you are thrown ballistically into space” (40). Such a wonderful analogy! Of course the text provides firm advice and instruction for both open-ended and closed-ended stories, but it is helpful to understand that DeMarinis–a well-respected writer of powerful short stories–still wrestles with many of the same elements of story that new writers often face.

DeMarinis’s text offers also an excellent chapter on “Description and Imagery” (188-207) in which he challenges short story writers to cast aside stock images, working instead to make an imaginative effort at creating new images that will involve the reader in the creative effort. The reader can then see a familiar setting or situation with new eyes.

One of the best things about this text is that it not only addresses common writing issues in the often-difficult parameters of short story writing, but that it provides direct examples from the short stories of masters like Hemingway, Chekhov, Welty and Faulker, as well as both successes and failures from DeMarinis’s own work.

Throughout the text, Demarinis makes it clear that the so-called rules of writing can and often should be broken. Realizing that these rules can actually be used as tools not only provides us with a means to build vivid, lasting short stories, but it offers freedom to experiment, to grow as we create.

Work Cited

DeMarinis, Rick. The Art & Craft of the Short Story. Cincinnati: Story Press, 2000. Print.


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