The Art and Craft of the Short Story by Rick DeMarinis

By Ekta R. Garg

October 28, 2015

Now that I’ve published four books (and am preparing a fifth) as a short story writer, I thought reading a craft book about short stories would enhance what I’m striving for every day. When I strolled through the writing books section in the library and saw The Art and Craft of the Short Story by Rick DeMarinis, I snapped it up. I got really excited about seeing a book that specifically targeted my chosen story form.

Overall this book offers writers who write to any length a lot of good advice. If you’ve tried reading Donald Maass and felt intimidated, this is a good primer because it has many of the same essential ideas without the soul piercing depth (but you still need to read Maass’ book because…well, it’s Donald Maass.) This book covers things like description and imagery, characters, plot, and others.

I don’t know, however, whether it would be fair to say that this book is only for short story writers. Much of the advice would make sense to anyone who writes fiction of any length. In that regard the book didn’t feel to me like something exclusive to short story enthusiasts, which was a touch of a disappointment. Still, the book is worth a writer’s time, and there are definitely points for a short story writer to take to heart.

[Disclaimer: any errors in quoting are mine.]

DeMarinis doesn’t waste any time in targeting a writer’s weaknesses. In the first chapter he says, “[A]ttack your empty-headed boredom directly: Write about it. Get playful. Writing isn’t hard work, it’s hard play.” He also addresses the fear—and inevitability—of rejection by quoting Gustave Flaubert who said, “Talent is long patience.”

As I said DeMarinis does talk occasionally about the differences between short stories and other lengths. In Chapter 3, “Beginnings, Endings, and the Stuff in Between”, he says, “The short story lifts the window blinds on someone else’s life, then, after we’ve seen enough to understand something about that life, the blinds are closed.”

Sometimes writers have a hard time defining what their story is about, but, DeMarinis says, when a writer is starting a new project s/he shouldn’t worry about the meaning of it just yet.

“Don’t concern yourself with theme. All you have to be able to do is to tell yourself, at some point in a story’s composition, what the story is about.”

DeMarinis also spends quite a bit of time on character development, something every single writer can appreciate.

“The contemporary short story, with rare exceptions, is exclusively character driven. This means the action (or ‘plot’) is generated by the central character’s predicament.”

He also reminds writers what about characters drives the story: “A character in need is the force that sets a story in motion.”

Motive—and a strong one at that—is crucial for writing compelling characters, DeMarinis says.

“A character who is merely interesting is never enough. Without the engine of ‘want’ pulling at them, they will never give you a story.”

DeMarinis also touches on plot, form, description, and other key writer tools. Ultimately, short or long, a writer’s job comes down to finding the best way to tell the story s/he wants to tell, the writer’s “dilemma” as DeMarinis calls it. Keeping one’s skills sharp will go a long way toward finding the solution to that dilemma.