This is another Training Tracks blog post from the archive of No Train, No Gain, originally published Oct. 25, 2004:
My initial reaction when an editor asked me to adapt my “Becoming a Storyteller” workshop to stress stories under 12 inches was cynicism.
I thought (and still think) that newspapers risk shooting themselves into the foot when they set arbitrary limits on stories. Certainly too many stories (not necessarily the longer stories) in newspapers are too long. I have developed a workshop to teach writers and editors how to tighten their stories. But I’ve always believed that newspapers need more, not less, of those spellbinding stories that the reader just can’t put down.
Two of the primary examples I use in the storytelling workshop are long narratives, one 70 inches and one 200 inches (I wrote 250 but the damn editors made me cut it). But I have enjoyed a lot of short stories, and I use some short narratives as examples in workshops, too. And I try to please my clients. I said I’d do it.
Then, as I tried to prepare for the workshop, I rebelled again. I wasn’t coming up with good examples or helpful techniques. I messaged a few friends, asking for some examples of short narrative. One responded suggesting a couple excellent stories that I have used before as examples. Both are much shorter than my 70-inch and 200-inch stories, but still nowhere near 12 inches.
I saw a good television commercial that told an effective story in just 30 seconds and thought maybe I could crib some good ideas from TV.
I remembered hearing Tom French, at a National Writers’ Workshop and at the Nieman Narrative Editing Seminar, use the great Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” to demonstrate some storytelling skills. Also at the Nieman Narrative Editing Seminar, Bruce DeSilva used “Love at the Five and Dime” the same way.
I thought songs might help demonstrate storytelling skills in relatively few words. Fortunately, you can find the lyrics to just about any popular song on the Internet, so it was easy to count the actual words in the songs I used. And it was easy to find good storytelling songs.
Before introducing the first song, I asked writers what they feared they would have to leave out of their stories to meet their paper’s tighter holes for most stories. Their list was predictable: color, scenes, quotes, background.
I asked how long they might write a story now if they got a good interview with the mother of a young man in their community who was slain in a senseless act of violence after she begged him not to go out with his guns. One said 15 inches. Another said 25. I said they were going to listen to that story told powerfully in 305 words (about 10 inches in their paper).
They listened to Johnny Cash sing “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.” He follows a fully developed story arc just as Jack Hart teaches (exposition-rising action-climax-denouement). It has all the story elements that I teach in my storytelling workshop: character, setting, plot, conflict, resolution, theme.
I was able to show the skeptical writers that you can develop characters in a short story not by using a volume of detail but by choosing just the right details. Billy Joe is “a boy filled with wanderlust who really meant no harm.” All we know of his mother is her tears and her words, but those powerful words haunt Billy Joe and become the theme of the story, repeated four times: “Don’t take your guns to town, son. Leave your guns at home, Bill. Don’t take your guns to town.”
That, of course, also is the conflict of the story: Billy Joe is restless and wants to go to town and take his guns; his mother begs him to leave the guns at home.
The third character is introduced right at the climax of the story in a powerful 11-word sentence: “A dusty cowpoke at his side began to laugh him down.” We don’t get a lot of description of this character, just two words. But those words and his actions — his laughter and his swift draw — give us a mental picture.
Unlike lots of newspaper stories, this story isn’t loaded with quotes. But the ones it uses are powerful. Billy Joe reassures his mother with words as prophetic as they are false (“I can shoot as quick and straight as anybody can. But I wouldn’t shoot without a cause. I’d gun nobody down.” His mother’s futile plea is the only other quote.
As I listened to the song, and to my words about the storytelling techniques that Cash used, I started thinking I needed to start practicing what I was preaching.
The other songs I used drove home the point: “Stewball” illustrated some points about sports stories; “Harper Valley PTA” was a meeting story; “Kentucky Rain,” a missing person story, has some effective scenes in just a few words. And, with credit to Tom French as well as the Beatles, I used “Eleanor Rigby” to show the powerful characterization in just a few words.
Of course, this column is longer than any of those songs. So was the story I wrote the day after the workshop (about a verdict in a murder trial). I need to work at adapting the storytelling skills of the songwriter to the newspaper page.
But I know at least one person was listening to what I was saying in that workshop.
Links to help with writing shorter stories:
- Roy Peter Clark’s “Five Myths about Short Writing“
- Tim McGuire’s “Tight Writing is Key“
- My own “Make your story sing“
Update: I presented this workshop several times in the next few years. It became one of my more popular and successful writing workshops. Another song that I used in it was Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” a powerful court story, suggested to me by Joe Brennan, an Omaha World-Herald colleague. One of my favorite training experiences came at Wordstock in Toronto, when I was leading this workshop. As I was wrapping up the discussion of “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” I took one last question from the participants before moving along to the next song. The woman I called on said the discussion was reminding her of the great storytelling in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” So I punched play on the CD and Dylan started singing about William Zanzinger and how he “killed poor Hattie Carroll with a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger.” Best setup I ever had in any workshop.