Saint Flannery Says...
Recently I reread, for the nth time, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," by Flannery O'Connor, or Saint Flannery, as she is known to some. I've been browsing through Mystery and Manners, a posthumous collection of her essays. In addition to an opening essay on peacocks (which she bred), she makes a few remarks on writing fiction. These may be well known, but they are worth quoting again and again, until we see them tattooed on our foreheads in the morning mirror, above our shaving creamed cheeks and our bleary eyes:
A story is a complete dramatic action--and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is meaning that derives from the whole presented experience.Read it again and again. Concreteness. Perception. No ideas but in things. That's what fiction is all about, the rendering of a real world from which meaning arises, not a statement of opinion, painted on a signboard and toted on stage by a weary protagonist in a tattered purple robe. Things that can be tasted and smelled and fondled and heard in the dead of night and seen. Yes, even Saint Flannery will allow the occasional thought. Just don't overdo it.
The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted and touched.... The fiction writer has to realize that he can't create compassion with compassion, or emotion with emotion, or thought with thought.
A good short story should not have less meaning than a novel, nor should its action be less complete.... All the action has to be satisfactorily accounted for in terms of motivation, and there has to be a beginning, a middle, and an end, though not necessarily in that order.
Meaning is what keeps the short story from being short.
When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully.
The average reader is pleased to observe anybody's wooden leg being stolen. But without ceasing to appeal to him and without making any statements of high intention, this story does manage to operate at another level of experience, by letting the wooden leg accumulate meaning.... Now of course this is never stated. The fiction write states as little as possible [ed.: about meaning]. The reader makes this connection from things he is shown.
I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Then they find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing.
The fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses through abstractions.
Fiction is so very much an incarnational art.
Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you.