Warren Bull and Nancy Pickard Discuss the Mystery Short Story"
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Sisters in Crime Feb. 5, 2011 Meeting
“When the two riders appeared out of nowhere, I knew they came to kill my pa.” So begins our own Warren Bull’s short story, “Beecher’s Bibles.” That first line gives a sense of time. “Those two riders aren’t on Harleys,” Warren said. The word “pa” also implies it’s historical. Finally, it sets the scene for the story and draws the reader in. What happens next?
Warren invited friend and fellow short story writer Nancy Pickard to help him present the February program on writing mystery short stories. The first line of the story is crucial, and Warren said it can take as long to come up with the right first line as it takes to write the rest of the story. Warren got his start writing short stories because of the Manhattan Mystery Conclave’s contest. (For which he wrote the winning story!) Since then, he’s had a number of stories published and now has his own collection of short stories available: Murder Manhattan Style. Short stories present different challenges from writing novels. You don’t have a lot of words.
Here are some of the elements discussed by Warren and Nancy:
• Characterization must be achieved quickly. Warren said that can be accomplished with a few well-chosen words of description, such as this line: “When I met her, I figured she was the sort of girl who ironed her own socks.” Dialogue helps define character and Warren finds writing in first person does, too.
• Pacing must be tight. Action must start immediately in a short story. It’s a struggle for horror writers who like to set up the mood and atmosphere, said Nancy.
• A crucible moment should be part of every short story, according to Harlan Ellison, Nancy said. That’s a severe test that may be the most important moment in that character’s life.
• Epiphany is another important element in a short story. Every story needs that “ah-ha” moment, said Nancy. Learning that at a writer’s conference at William Jewell College in the early 1980s completely changed her approach to writing short stories, she said, and she was much more successful after that.
• The iceberg describes the form of a short story, according to Ernest Hemingway. Warren said what you see and read in the story is only part of what’s going on.
• Endings of mystery short stories do tend to be resolved and tied up neatly – frequently with a twist – and often with plenty of surprises along the way, as opposed to the sometimes ambiguous endings of literary short stores.
You can see these elements in Nancy’s and Warren’s favorite short stories. Nancy likes “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Hemingway (read it at http://www.mrbauld.com/hemclean.html )and “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J.D. Salinger (read it at http://www.nyx.net/~kbanker/chautauqua/jd.htm )
One of Warren’s favorites is short enough to be reprinted here in its entirety:
The Soap Bubble
It was.“It’s a completely satisfying story with a popping good ending,” Warren said.