Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Category: Short Story Tips

Writing About a Spousal Fight

Guest Post by David S. Atkinson

Intro by Nathaniel Tower

When David S. Atkinson asked if I would read his latest short story collection, I didn’t hesitate. A chance to get a free advanced copy of a book I knew I would like by a great writer and good friend? There was no way I could turn that down. David is a treasured member of the literary community. Aside from being a voracious reader who can somehow read and digest every word of any book within 24 hours of receiving it, he’s one of the nicest and most supportive writers I’ve ever met. And he’s damn funny, which is on display both through his personal interactions and his fiction. Not Quite So Stories is one of the best collections I’ve read, and I’m not just saying that because we’re friends. I’m saying that because I mean it. Unlike David (who must have some sort of time-freezing device) I don’t have the time or dedication to read every book that gets sent my way, but David’s was one that I read and enjoyed thoroughly. And I probably owed it to him. Of course, after reading it, I feel like I owe him even more. Yup, it’s that good. 

If you haven’t read David’s collection, do so now. But before you do, stick around here and enjoy learning a little more about his process and inspiration for one of my favorite stories in the collection.


david atkinson

Writing about people one actually knows is always an uncertain territory. Conflicts with loved ones is particularly fraught with peril. After all, one never knows how the subject will react. Presuming one actually cares, the need to write the story must be weighed against how the person might feel, and what they might do about it.

Writing about a spousal conflict is even more of a minefield, especially if one wants the marriage to continue.

However, I did write about an area of my real life marital strife in my story “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012,” which is included in my new short story collection Not Quite so Stories. The issue centers on, as one might guess from the title, toilet paper. There are great disagreements in our household over toilet paper.

To explain, my wife is an “under the roll” believer, whereas I maintain that this is blasphemous. I take this quite seriously, which amuses my wife. Also, she doesn’t tend to replace empty rolls unless she herself needs them. Sometimes, she’ll just set a new roll nearby and start using it rather than actually placing it on the roll. This all bothers me much, much more than is reasonable. toilet paper war

So, it all went into the story. I went wild with it, taking things to ridiculously absurd extremes (I have never, I repeat never, glued toilet paper to a roll in order to ensure that there is always toilet paper on the holder, whether usable or not). Still, the core of our “debate” is there and I’m airing our dirty laundry in public.

Is that a good idea? Should I have done it? One school of thought, advocated by Anne Lamott, is to go ahead…but to: “give the character a small penis,” the idea being that the subject would never claim that the character is them. However, I didn’t want to give my wife any kind of penis at all. Further, I wouldn’t worry about my wife claiming the character is her. Rather, I would be concerned with her being hurt and thus damaging our relationship.

So, what did I do?

Well, first of all, I wrote about a relatively insignificant conflict. Arguments about toilet paper may get heated at home, but this is a fairly petty matter that isn’t particularly private. I think that helps. Also, the story is humorous. I’m trying to entertain and make people laugh, not get validation from the reading public regarding my position in the argument (I’m still right). Beyond that, I made sure to make the wife in the story more reasonable whereas the husband is a loveable yet ridiculously over serious about toilet paper protocol. In short, he’s a buffoon. Even if my wife read the story and felt it was an airing of a private marriage matter in public, I’m the one I made look ridiculous. All of those things work together to make me feel more okay in writing about something from my marriage.

david atkinsonNow, am I guaranteed to be okay? Absolutely not. However, I know what I’m comfortable with and I know my wife. I thought about whether or not I should write the story, and I thought about it deeply before I began writing…no matter how innocuous I thought it was. I considered her possible feelings, and considered them again before getting the story published. Whether or not I’m actually okay, I thought about it a great deal and decided I was. Personally, I think the fact that I considered her feelings mattered more than anything I happened to write.

Of course, it also probably helps that my wife doesn’t hang on every word I write. She’s got a lot of important things going in her life and I’m not the center of everything. Nor should I be. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure she’s read “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012” yet. We’ll have to see if my advice on this changes when she does.

Wish me luck.


David S. Atkinson is the author of Apocalypse All the Time (forthcoming 2017), Not Quite so Stories, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (2015 National Indie Excellence Awards finalist in humor), and Bones Buried in the Dirt (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is

Developing Character Through Movement & Gesture

Lately, I’ve been focusing on an aspect of character development in my own work that I’ve noticed in stories that catch my attention, especially in flash fiction: revealing character through embodied movement.[1]  A character’s lifelike qualities emerge vividly out of how she occupies the narrative space. The brevity and compression of flash allows writers to experiment with form and structure with few constraints. In respect to embodied movement, as with any aspect of fiction, the writing and the words carry more freight. One of the more memorable examples is Ron Carlson’s “The Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” The whole piece is a wonderful work of characterization, yearning, emotion, and movement in a confined space:

He worked one dress shoe off with the other, and then held it on a toe as long as he could. The air cooled his arch perfectly, and he thought that: perfect. Evaporation was such a stunning feature of life on earth. Water rises into the air. Now he opened his mouth and then a little wider than was comfortable. [2]

Another is Kathy Fish’s lovely “Tenderoni” from Smokelong Quarterly, where a young woman watches her boyfriend figure out how to move a dead kitten off the road:

My boyfriend and I grab our bikes and pedal across town for a parade which has probably been cancelled anyway. Ahead, Mark’s skinny calves pump, his day glo rain poncho flaps behind him like a flag. He stops and gets off the bike and I catch up to him.

“Oh, damn,” I say. “A kitty.”

“It looks sort of lumpy,” he says. There’s a drop of rain holding on to the tip of his nose and steam rising from his shoulders. “We should move it.”[3]

We know nothing about this couples’ ages, not much about how they look, or exactly where they are. It’s raining, they want to see a parade, they ride bicycles. One likes to smoke, one wears glasses. They are tender with one another. Readers feel like they share something intimate and significant with these people. Most of what we learn about them is from how they move and act and in what they say to one another.

Characters move through space and display physical characteristics, emotional expressions, and psychological states. They also convey their intellect, sexuality, humor, mood, opinions, trauma, and the status of their relationships. How a character conducts herself in the story tells us more than a description. We typically take advantage of dialogue as an opportunity for subtext, but movement can enrich characterization without having to rely on explication. When we show how a character emotes, for example, the disparity between their inner lives and their exterior responses contribute to tension and conflict. Nancy Stohlman in The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories cleverly borrows most everything the story needs with a one-word title, “Samson” and writes twenty-one more words of precise movement and dialogue:

“Don’t worry, we’ll both do it,” Delilah said, reaching for the hair clippers on the counter next to the lice shampoo.” [4]

How a character or reader changes and transforms over time in the narrative space has something to do with embodiment and movement, even if there is little to no embodiment and/or restricted movement. They are enabled to act in some way. A character’s movement also influences how time dilates and constricts, speeds up and slows down. This is how character movement can regulate pacing and momentum.

In “Abbreviated Glossary” Gay Degani uses concise, stark sentences to convey an emotionally charged story in 150 words that takes place over eight months:


His lips disappear between his teeth when I break the news. He says he’s not ready—no diapers for him—but I know he is. I’ll do the hard part. I promise.


My fingers knead the curve of my belly. Dev slips an arm around my waist and grins at his boss. Proud papa.[5]

Amelia Gray in “House Heart” tells the story of how a couple lures a woman to their home and traps her in the ductwork. For one woman, her whole world becomes the visible interior of the house and how she dwells in it with her husband and this new, determined presence. For another woman, her space is confined to the interior of a house and the spaces she creates:

We licked each other’s faces, listening to the girl above us. At that moment, she was learning that she could crawl on her hands and knees in he main passage, but that in the smaller lines, she would have to slide on her belly, arms outstretched, pulling herself forward.[6]

Eventually, everyone’s focus narrows to the interior where violations of hospitality play out.

Character development through movement is another way for our characters to gain more presence, mass, and substance. A young, recently injured gymnast is going to move very differently than his older brother who is a former heavyweight class wrestler and makes glass for a living. There are also characters we cannot help but remember always, not so much for the way they look but for their presence and how they bear themselves in a story.


[1] Bradley, April. First published as “Character Development & Movement.” Fiction Flash Fiction Chronicles. July 3, 2015.
[2] Carlson, Robert. “Great Open Mouth Anti-Sadness.” Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories. Ed. James Thomas & Robert Shapard. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 62-63.
[3] Fish, Kathy. “Tenderoni.” Smokelong Quarterly. Issue 28. October 2, 2008 Accessed June 13, 2015.
[4] Stohlman, Nancy. “Samson.” The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories. Magill SA, Australia: A Pure Slush Book, 2014, 86.
[5] Degani, Gay. “Abbreviated Glossary.” Melusine, or Woman in the 21st Century. Accessed June 13, 2015.
[6] Gray, Amelia. “House Heart.” Gunshot: Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 16.





Beyond Anecdote: How to Write Flash Fiction That Means Something

When an editor finds your flash submission anecdotal, you can typically expect to receive a rejection letter. But what does “anecdote” mean, anyway? Some say that an anecdote has flat characters, or an underdeveloped narrative, or that it lacks an intrinsic logic or natural progression. An anecdote can mean all of these things, but for me it mainly means that the story doesn’t delve beyond the surface, that it lacks staying power and emotional impact.

I’ve selected five of my favorite flashes to demonstrate how a story can carry weight and meaning in 1,000 words or less. The five stories I’ve highlighted are very different, but each goes beyond their surface narrative, creating something potent and universal.

Before you read what I have to say about the stories, read them for yourself and think about how they make you feel, what elements evoke your response. Then think about how some of the tools the authors use—language, structure, voice—could be developed in your own work. This, more than anything, will teach you how to write flash that means something.

“Egg Toss, August 1989” by Meagan Cass, published in SmokeLong Quarterly

This story has it all—vivid characters, rich setting, poetic prose—all of which add up to create a sense of loss for something that never really was. I love the sense of honesty here. Cass refuses to package things into a neat dichotomy—a glorified past and childhood versus a less enchanting present.  Here the past is more complex, as often is the case in real life, earning our trust in the story’s emotional truth.

Body language creates a sense of movement and adds to the story’s authenticity—we can see the aunts curling away from the father, the way the mother drinks her beer too fast.  Every detail counts, deepening our understanding of the characters.  And while the language is lovely, there are no throwaway symbols or metaphors. Instead, Cass focuses on the image of the egg—“whole, opaque, blessed”—to convey the narrator’s desire for his family to be whole.

“Out There” by Lindsay Hunter; published in the author’s short story collection Daddy’s and in The Nervous Breakdown  

You’d be hard-pressed to find a flowery phrase in this story, but isn’t the language brilliant just the same? Read it aloud to see what I mean—there is a rhythm here, a kind of music, with each sentence luring us more deeply in. Hunter begins with a declaration: “People burn cars out there.” Then we have a longer sentence that contrasts with the staccato of the first, grabbing our attention with the image of a father shaking lighter fluid over a car “like he was seasoning it.” What kind of father does that? we wonder. And what does “out there” mean?

The reader suspects that “out there” could be a metaphor for abandonment. It’s a place where things are left behind, like an old car or the narrator’s dog Jinx, who is abandoned by Pop and left to join a pack of wild dogs. Or like the child narrator herself, who also finds herself abandoned. Perhaps “out there” doesn’t mean just one thing—it also seems to embody the chaos of the narrator’s father, the danger of becoming like him.

What makes the story great is that Hunter doesn’t draw these parallels in a heavy-handed way—if anything, the deeper meaning of the story is an afterthought. Instead, Hunter focuses on evoking a sense of place through imagery—the choir of dogs with their “brutal chorus,” “God’s bloody iris” —which seem sprung from the language of dreams.

Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady” by Robert Swartwood, published in PANK

I love the way that Swartwood uses objects to tell a story, the way the structure of the piece leads you down the rabbit hole of the narrative. The mystery of Jason Reynolds builds with each found object—a plastic compass, a pack of gum, photographs held together by a paperclip. The ordinariness of the objects act as a foil to the complex character that emerges, a character Swartwood manages to make us like in spite of what we learnthat he’s a killer.

Swartwood accomplishes this by giving Jason multiple dimensions, by having him take a beating for his brother, by layering the character with each discovered object. The ending, which could have been a gimmicky twist in a weaker story, is a gut-puncher. While surprising, it also flows from the progression of the narrative. By the time we finish reading, we wonder if we knew who the “FOURTH” would be all along.

“Run for Your Life” by Kate Wisel, published in Bartleby Snopes

This was love at first read. In fact, I loved this story so much I couldn’t stop to think about why I loved it—it hit me on a visceral level, much like the moments of impact the narrator observes and experiences in the piece.

Part of why I couldn’t stop to think is because Wisel doesn’t let me. She grabs me with her first sentence, sweeping me along with her narrator as we run down Comm. Ave., until I feel that I too have glistening calves, “like nylon.”  Here, language mimics content—the pace of the prose is breathless, picking up momentum as we watch the bike thief from the narrator’s eyes, the way he springs free from men who try to restrain him “like he was dribbling a basketball through their legs.”

We only slow down to learn about the narrator.  Her backstory about stalking her ex is brief but potent. In fact, the narrator’s choices—both past and present—are what make this more than a well-written anecdote. Her final choice—delivered in a wallop of a last line—hits the reader with nuanced meaning and resonance.

“It’s End of the World Karaoke” by Ashley Inguanta, published in PANK  

Inguanta manages to build a world in only 663 words, creating a vivid moment in time before that world goes silent. The premise—hanging out in a bar and belting out karaoke until the Earth burns down—is a surprising take on apocalypse. The lighthearted details—nachos, taking a photo for Facebook—stand in contrast to the doom and gloom narrative we expect to see.

But Inguanta takes it a step further by creating Javier, the main character we see her world through.  Javier is what elevates this piece from a unique premise to a memorable story. He wants so much—to be kissed, to connect, to not be alone. The details about his past—namely that he only ever kissed one girl, and that she had a small breathing problem— make his story feel vivid, authentic.

It’s specifics like these that make a character universally resonant, not broad, general brushstrokes. While the world Inguanta creates is fantastical, the emotions she evokes—desire and loneliness—are our own.


What’s the Pinch?

The vision for Bartleby Snopes is clear to its editors. For the weekly content, BS is looking for a narrow scope of work defined by length, form and quality. However, simply put, it’s hard to find. Worse, it’s getting harder to give constructive feedback without edging towards snark. If you’ve read my posts and rejection letters you know I hate ‘being formal’…

Several shifts in market forces and writer skill base has made that harder in the last ten years. BS responded by becoming one of the earliest and loudest writer advocates by giving constructive feedback with a factor of unprecedented timeliness. That “harder to find” thing… Yeah, right now, that’s a pinch that makes this editor wants to rant. What does that mean?

Let’s look at a parallel profession for a moment: news editorial. If it’s news then it’s not the Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite types who resonate for the public anymore. It’s the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert types, who argue that ridiculous public policy and behavior needs to be shown as ridiculous, regardless of being part of “establishment”.

stewartIt’s not about better news, but it is a realistic requirement that news editorial evolve in face of changing public consciousness: If snark is what resonates now in editorial then it’s because so much of what’s under scrutiny is ridiculous. In light of this, it’s hard to keep a straight face when reporting or editorializing. It’s the pinch that makes this editor want to go all “Daily Show.” Yeah, that’s a thing now. Going Jon Stewart.

Is responding really that hard for Literary Editors?

So much for news editorial. I would argue that lit magazines can’t say they’re not feeling the same pressure. In other words, if there is any analogy for us lit editors, it is that we don’t have to “accept the ridiculous”, simply based on an inborn desperation in American authors for validation as unique and special snow-flakes. It’s suicide for any editor to assume that “human beings are special” based solely on the fact that they hold public office or have access to a spell-checker and a submit button.

The large portion of newer writers flooding the market with submissions don’t workshop (in any of the loosest definitions of the word). They write fiction like they write email–especially flash fiction. And let’s focus on that specific form for a moment: Flash Fiction. Bartleby Snopes’ preference for Flash Fiction is quite possibly one of the most misunderstood calls we have out there for writers. It’s not for lack of trying–it’s clarified in almost all the feedback and advice we give.

BS is not publishing the literary equivalent of lolcats vignettes or 4chan jokes or email anecdotes. That would simply not be the quality or level of effort that BS is interested in. Yet, that level of effort characterizes most of what writers produce *and* submit. Notice that’s a two-part animal.

Yes, you should write
For the “produce” part of this claim, there’s a 90 percent rule for a writer–writers who are to fill notebooks with snippets, sketches, frameworks, quotes, outlines and false starts. As a writer, you’re supposed to produce miles of dribble and undeveloped crap before you get to the good stuff. The problem is that nowadays, submission procedures allows writers to pretty much submit it all–90% of which they shouldn’t.

By way of example, it’s said that Orson Scott Card writes around 500,000 words a year. Despite this, he never expects to publish more than about 10% of it. He knows better. He’s a professional. He’s one of those writers who, if he couldn’t write, would probably explode. Having said that, if his editors saw it all they would be quite right to respond to it and say, “I don’t care if you’re Orson Scott Card, this is not your best effort.”

…No, you shouldn’t submit all of it
Do you as a writer honestly expect to publish everything you write? Can you tell the difference in which bits of your work is which? There are no snarky analogies for this one. They are simple questions. I guarantee you’ll be a happier writefacepalmr if you have an honest answer.

Specifically, let me be clear: I find it harder and harder to respond to submissions on par with (and I resort to my news analogy) “Weiner sends crotch selfie” using high quality “Macneil-Lehrer” editorial. Quite simply, the snark in me is crying out for more hands to handle the facepalm I am experiencing in reading some of these submissions.

What do writers want from editors?
Let me put it to the you, the writer. If an editor reads your story and wants to cry in pain, which class of response do you want:



The options

In no particular order:

  • Class 3 “It’s Bad”: If BS were more blunt or mocking (as a few accusations lately would indicate) we could go class 3. When I read a story about a clown who masturbates in a closet with a penlight while reading Chaucer, I tend to write back with a rejection that says, “It’s missing the dramatic arc and character development we usually go for.” …. When what I really want to write is, “OMG, is this autobiographical? Dude, use a booklight clip so you’re hands-free at least… BTW, why do you think we’d publish this?” All snark. Some meanness. Lots of honesty. Can the submitter take it?
  • Class 4 “You’re Bad”: I guarantee if we opened a bullpen for rejected submissions and allowed public comment, the unwashed masses on the internet would go class 4 with abandon. You can rely on the Internet to treat you with all the vicious sensitivity of a group of seventh-grade girls giggling over your mom’s maxi-pad that just fell out of your purse.
  • Class 1 “It’s Not for Us”: Old-school editors are “class 1” response all the way. They do nothing to service the writers as a whole who have forcibly changed the landscape of submissions. Sorry you class-one-type editors: You can continue reading 5000 stories a year and publish 12 of them, while giving no feedback at all, but you aren’t acknowledging that the way we tell each other stories has fundamentally changed. Writers are responding by creating their own venues, and your monolithic influence is diluted. There’s a little smudge there on your Monolith. I can see it. Might be a ding actually. Ouch. 
  • Class 2 “It’s Undeveloped”: Bartleby Snopes gives “class 2” feedback by mission and by design–specific to your piece, which may be something else besides ‘undeveloped’ but at least you get an idea. We really want to be kind. We really want to be constructive. We really want to send the kind of rejection letter that we (as writers) would find honest and encouraging. We’re considerate, consistent, patient, accessible. We’re the 90’s parent. We’re Andy Rooney. We’re writers.

Class 3 response (where snark is king) is tempting. We get some truly weird, awful submissions. Unless you say something, I’ll continue to resist the snark. Mostly. You want constructive, right? I can do that.

Which reminds me… Are you getting any other feedback? Maybe you don’t workshop, but who is your first reader? What are your methods for revision? Do you have a web forum you like? A favorite blog? What’s the best rejection you ever got? The rudest? The funniest? What are the most rejections you ever got for a story that was eventually published?

Sound off folks.

Top Ten Reasons You Keep Getting Rejected

Rejection sucks. But no one ever said writing would be all fun and games.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had your fair share of rejections. While we’re usually able to bounce back quickno-68481_640ly and submit again, sometimes it’s important to reflect on why we’re getting rejected. If you’re used to getting a big fat stack of “No” in your inbox, then it’s time to figure out the problem.

Here are the top ten reasons you keep getting rejected:

1. You aren’t reading the publications before submitting.

If you haven’t read at least one story or poem from a magazine, then you are wasting your time submitting. It’s important to read what they publish to get a feel. Besides, why do you want to be published in something you don’t want to read?

2. You aren’t reading enough current writers.

Yes, we all know you write exactly like William Faulkner, but how do you stack up with today’s current writers? It’s important to read what’s currently being published. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that all the best writing was done years ago by dead white guys.

3. You are saving your best work for The New Yorker.

Everything you send out should be your best work. If it’s not your best, then hold onto it until it is your best.

4. You aren’t revising enough.

How many revisions did you go through on the last piece you just submitted? If the answer is zero, one, or two, then you definitely aren’t putting enough time and energy into your writing. Your stories will never be the best on the first or second try.

5. You aren’t letting other people read your writing.

You don’t have to workshop everything you do, but if you never let anyone read your writing, then you aren’t going to gain much critical insight into what you could be doing better. There’s an old saying that we’re our own toughest critic. For most people in the writing world, this isn’t true at all. It’s often hard to figure out what’s wrong in your own writing. Find a writing friend who is ruthless and share your work.

6. Your writing isn’t unique.

Are you writing the same old plots in the same old style with the same old tropes? Stop. You need to write something that hasn’t been written before. With thousands of new pieces of fiction and poetry published every day, you have to do something to set your writing apart.

7. Your submission isn’t a good fit.

The number one reason why a story gets rejected isn’t because it isn’t good enough to be published. It’s because it’s not right for a specific publication. It may all go back to reading publications before submitting, but getting acceptances really does come down to finding a perfect fit.

8. You aren’t following guidelines.

Are you single spacing when they want you to double space? What about the time you went twenty words over the word limit? These things matter a lot to publishers. If you want to get on the fast track to rejection, then don’t listen to what they want you to do.

9. You are submitting too frequently.

The more you submit, the more you will get rejected. It’s a numbers game, but it’s also common sense. If you are submitting twenty times a day, then when are you finding time to write, read, edit, or research? Slow down your submissions and work on the more important things.

10. You are a writer.

We all get rejected. If you don’t want to be rejected, then either stop being a writer or go live in a cave. If you opt for the cave, chances are one day a big bear will come by and reject your work.

If you find yourself getting rejected at every turn, then it’s time to reevaluate what you are doing. By putting more time into your craft and making more sensible submission choices, you can improve your acceptance rate.

What are some other reasons why your stories are getting rejected? Share them in the comments below.

A Visual Guide to Bad Dialogue

Is bad dialogue ruining your stories?

Writing good dialogue–like any other aspect of good writing–is an art form. Dialogue needs to feel natural, to move the story forward, to be interesting, and a whole lot more. Oftentimes, writers will bury their dialogue within overly descriptive tags. Other times, writers use dialogue without clear purpose. These aren’t even the worst of the dialogue blunders.

Rather than going on and on about how to write (and how not to write) dialogue, here is a visual guide to bad dialogue. By seeing these obvious mistakes, you should have a better idea of what to avoid when crafting your own dialogue.

These are the four most common mistakes I see writers make when crafting dialogue (a special thanks to Assistant Editor April Bradley for designing the comic strips):

1. Using dialogue to describe things:

Marshmallow Clouds

2. Using dialogue to convey action:

As I Lay Dying

3. Using dialogue that sounds too formal and nothing like the way people really speak:


4. Using dialogue that tries too hard to sound exactly how people talk:

Sweet Nadda

Dialogue can be a great way to move a story forward and reveal more about characters, but it can also be the downfall of your story. Don’t fall into these dialogue traps.

Don’t forget about our 6th Annual Dialogue Only Contest going on right now at Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press. We’re giving away a minimum of $500 to our winners this year. So let your characters start talking. They may just earn you a lot of fame and fortune.

Take Your Writing from Anecdote to Story

The most common note I make when voting “no” on a submission is this – anecdote, not story. It would appear that many writers don’t know the difference. I know I didn’t – not when I entered my MFA program anyway. After three intense years of studying craft I finally got it … with a little help from Aristotle and my professors.

So what distinguishes story from anecdote? Although plot isn’t the only thing, it is the big one. What is plot? Here is the most helpful explanation that I’m aware of, which you may have heard as well:

No plot: The king died, and then the queen died.
Plot: The king died, and then the queen died of grief.

When I think of plot in short fiction I picture a line of dominoes, each knocking the one before it down – cause and effect. The classic study of this phenomenon can be found in Aristotle’s Poetics. Although written about drama, the principles outlined there have been a tremendous help to countless fiction writers. Pick up a copy – along with Oedipus Rex, which you will need as well – and give both a read. Preferably Oedipus followed by the relevant section of Poetics followed by Oedipus again. Although you won’t find many plots as rigid as that found in the Sophocles appearing on our site (or in the recent BASS, for that matter), studying all of this should help you see how satisfying the plots that do appear there really are.

Here at Bartleby Snopes we don’t need a structure as formal as that found in Greek tragedy, nor do we need a virtually uncountable number of dominoes to fall at breakneck speed like they do in a book such as The Da Vinci Code. But something really should cause something else. A couple of dominoes. Three. Maybe four. You get the picture.

So that’s plot – the most important thing that distinguishes a story from an anecdote. But what else? Most pieces that get the dreaded anecdote, not story comment from me also lack a beginning, middle and end. This sounds like plot, and it is related; certainly there is a very distinct beginning, middle and end that arise out of plot in Oedipus. But we see some submissions that, even though they have a plot, wander around way too much. They lack a natural progression. Even seemingly plotless stories like Woolf’s Kew Gardens and Turgenev’s Bezhin Meadow feature a highly satisfying progression.

Finally, a few words about endings – you need one. If you want to take your narrative from anecdote to story, anyway. Many of the pieces we reject as anecdote just fizzle out. Or the writer attempts to end them by throwing something big in there, like a violent death, that fails because it did not arise out of the narrative we’ve been given. The ending should, as I just said, and I’ll repeat it because this is important, arise out of the narrative. As is often said, the perfect ending should be surprising, and yet feel inevitable. It won’t feel inevitable if it doesn’t follow naturally from that which has come before it. I don’t need the kind of button you’d see at the end of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but I need something. And if I find a little insight into the human condition there, all the better.

So that is my down and dirty on anecdote versus story. Hopefully some of you will find this helpful. It has certainly helped me to give this topic some thought.