Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.
“What is a story?” is a question for literary theory. We don’t have time for that. We’re just looking for a single thing that can help us give a sense of “story” (whatever that is), regardless of genre.
For me, the handy little heuristic can be expressed in one tricksy word: anagnorisis.
Anagnorisis is formed from the root words “back” and “making known.” Classical writers used it to describe the climactic moment when the protagonist of a Greek tragedy became painfully aware of the truth of their situation. Anagnorisis is a change from ignorance to knowledge.
In tragedy a character is driven by a fatal flaw to blindly create an awful situation. When they become aware of both the awful situation and their contribution to its creation, that is the anagnorisis, when they move from ignorance to knowledge.
This works in literary fiction short stories as well, although with more every day events. A character might realize that they can’t go home again, or that they must go home again, or that even though they’re home again, home isn’t what it used to be.
Anagnorisis leads two of of the features that creative writing teachers and literary theorists often associate with short stories: beginning-middl-end and character arcs. In order to understand that the character has passed from ignorance to knowledge, we have to see them before, during, and after anagnorisis — and anagnorisis often makes the character change. As any writing book will tell you, characters have to change for it to be a story.
Except that’s not really true. Characters don’t always change in stories. In slice of life short stories the main character may not go through anagnorisis. Barely anything happens at all. But in depicting the character, the reader learns something about them. Even if the character doesn’t change, our understanding of them changes. In slice of life stories, even if the character doesn’t go through anagnorisis, the reader does.
Which sounds a lot like a mysteries. In classic detective stories, the detective is ahead of the reader. The high point of a detective story is when the detective creates anagnorisis in the reader when they explain whodunnit.
Science fiction short stories work very much like mysteries. As Terry Bisson said in “60 Rules for Short Science Fiction”: “The SF reader is a gamer who brings a problem-solving intelligence to the story.” Anagnorisis in short science fiction climaxes as the writer gives the reader answers to questions like “What is the nature of the scientific speculation in this story?” and “What are its ramifications?”
Moving anagnorisis from something the main character goes through to the mind of the reader also helps with a philosophical short story. Jorge Luis Borges wrote short stories that had little or no characters at all, but they explored a single, often paradoxical idea to its very exhaustion. The idea becomes clearer and clearer until it pops starkly into focus in the reader’s mind. Anagnorisis
So if you’re writing a short story, of whatever genre, and it seems like it’s lacking shape or power or the climax doesn’t quite do what you want it to do, ask yourself if your story occasions anagnorisis, either in the main character or the mind of the reader.
It might be a useful heuristic.
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