The Anatomy of a Short Story…and An Exercise in Exorcising Weak Metaphores.

I performed open-heart surgery this week.

Surprised? I bet you didn’t know I could do that, did you?

There wasn’t any blood, swabbing or stitching; or for that matter, nurses or anaesthetists. I wasn’t even in an operating theatre. No, the scene of this surgical act was not a hospital but an entirely different public institution: a university. More accurately, my Creative Writing class.

The procedure we undertook was an analysis of a short story, and by the end of the session it really did feel that we had, between us, performed a major operation akin to cardiovascular surgery.

Someone forgot to feed the dog!

Someone forgot to feed the dog!

First, we read the story as a whole, before examining sections in isolation; you might say we carried out a literectomy. Then we proceeded to dissect paragraphs in order to get under the skin of the author; in short, we conducted a prosopsy. (That’s enough with the surgical metaphors, even the made-up ones. Thank you, Ed.)

I found the process fascinating. Of course, I know that there is an art to writing a successful short story (I don’t mean a commercially successful story; rather one that is just plain brilliant), and I strive to learn and understand the methods and skills required to produce one of my own. But going through one story, looking closely at the way the author has sculpted characters, set the scene, created tension and conflict and used a particular point of view to the best possible effect, reminded me that I have a long, long way to go before I might be able to come up with something to be truly proud of.

We looked especially at how the author creates the sense of a character without really describing anything physical about her; instead the author shows us how she reacts to other characters; we learn about her through how she speaks and the words she says; even the building she lives in reflects aspects of her personality.

We looked at how a subtle change in a character’s vocabulary can be used to suggest a change in their circumstance. It might not be something you notice straight away, but you gradually become aware that a change has occurred. Then you understand that a skilled hand has been at work; so skilled that you can’t see the stitches (careful there with those metaphors, Ed.)

Everything the author does is quite deliberate, despite the apparent effortlessness involved. Our tutor suggested they had more than likely written fifty or so drafts before they were entirely happy; a sobering thought for someone who has taken an age to complete a rough first draft of a story. 

And yet, I felt totally inspired by this session. I now want to employ some of those skills in my own writing. I’m aware that much hard work will be involved; it’s a challenge I’m prepared to face.

The class ended with a session on the pitfalls of using similes and metaphors in your writing. We were given a list of actual examples found in high school essays; apparently English teachers make a sport of rounding up the best (worst) examples in order to entertain the laughing masses. Our task was to rewrite just one so that it would sit more comfortably in a work of fiction.

I honestly think it’s impossible to improve on the one I was given, which I reproduce here for your entertainment:

“Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.”

You see? It’s good. Very good. Almost genius. But try I did, and after what felt like hours, but was in fact only five minutes, I came up with the following pathetic attempt:

“Her vocabulary was as bad as illiterate person’s parrot’s, but lacked the finesse afforded by the bird’s feathery flourish.”

I have every reason to be embarrassed by this. But creating subtle and appropriate similes and metaphors isn’t easy; cliché lurks around every corner, just waiting to leap onto the page.

See how you manage with improving some of these. (Actually, just read them for a laugh. They’re more entertaining than anything on the telly).

“Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.”

“The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.”

“John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.”

“The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.”

“The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.”

By common assent in our class, our favourite was the following gem.

“He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a landmine or something.”

I hope you enjoyed those. It’s poetry next week in class. I’ve never written a single line of verse. Should be interesting.

(The short story we looked at was ‘A Real Durwan’ by Jhumpa Lahiri.)

© flyingscribbler 2013


4 comments on “The Anatomy of a Short Story…and An Exercise in Exorcising Weak Metaphores.

  1. Debbie Hitchins says:

    Love this, Justin, really made me want to return to my A level English Literature class. And the similes at the end made me laugh aloud. Please keep up the commentary, I’m really enjoying your creative writing class. Do you know if the short story you studied is available online?

  2. Sounds like you’re having fun!

    • Debbie Hitchins says:

      Thanks very much for this, Justin. I look forward to reading and inwardly digesting soon.   D xx


  3. John Wiswell says:

    The “like whatever” quote is just about immaculate. I remember when I studied authors’ notes in college. Mark Twain is the maestro of sounding effortless, and he dissected his work consistently to achieve it.

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