Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Mighty Tiny Tim


Vincent H. O’Neil (http://www.vincenthoneil.com) is the award-winning author of the Frank Cole murder mystery series (Murder in Exile, Reduced Circumstances, and Exile Trust). His short story “Finish the Job”, about a father-daughter team of art thieves who don’t know when to quit, was recently released in the anthology Quarry: Crime Stories by New England Writers from Level Best Books (http://www.levelbestbooks.com/). His short story “Blood Tells”, about a money launderer who feels unappreciated, will be released in the anthology Bad Cop-No Donut from Padwolf Publishing in the spring of 2010.

Recently, I had the good fortune to have two short stories included in anthologies. So when The Stiletto Gang (I have to work that name into one of my mystery novels) offered me the chance to guest blog for them, I decided to try and write something in praise of the short story.

Considering the season, I was not surprised when the image of Dickens’ Tiny Tim came to mind during my brainstorming. Not only is Tiny Tim short in stature, but he also employs a marvelous economy of words. “God bless us, every one!” is, I believe, his only line in A Christmas Carol and yet it sums up the story and its spirit quite nicely. It also ranks up there with “Bah, humbug!” as the most memorable line of that Christmas classic.

Tiny Tim’s kind of pithiness is an absolute must in short story writing, where the dreaded word limit sometimes suggests that we might have to sacrifice important elements. While it’s true that we don’t have a limitless number of pages for things such as character development, this in no way lets us off the hook. Just as Tiny Tim manages to cap Scrooge’s long night using only a few words, in the writing of short stories we have to look for more concise methods of communicating our ideas and information.

Although it’s taken from the world of theater, here’s an example of how a few actions and limited dialogue can yield a big result: On stage, a young woman is nervously hosting her father-in-law, who has dropped by the newlyweds’ apartment unannounced. The young woman offers the father-in-law some coffee, and leaves him in the living room while she goes into the kitchen. As soon as she’s gone, the father-in-law quickly and efficiently goes through the newlyweds’ mail, which was sitting on the table in front of him. He puts the letters and bills back in exactly the same place just before she returns, and is sitting there as if he’d done nothing in her absence.

The director providing this example described it as an efficient way of getting the audience to ponder many different possibilities regarding the character of the father-in-law. Is he merely a snoop, or is he worried about the young couple’s finances? Is there something in his son’s background that prompts him to be watchful? And why is he so good at snooping in the first place? All of these ideas and questions were conjured up in the minds of the audience by a few actions on stage, just like the space-saving devices we use when writing short stories.

To continue the topic of brevity, one of my instructors at The Fletcher School was noted for the pithiness of his class lectures. Commenting on that topic, he once said, “If you want me to speak for five minutes, I’ll need a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for a half an hour, I’ll need a day. And if you want me to speak for an hour, I’m ready right now.”

This was a comment on the demanding taskmaster that is brevity. In a seeming contradiction, it can take longer (and involve more work) to communicate your point in a single sentence than by using several paragraphs. It was also an observation that bamboozling an audience for an hour requires little preparation, while doing the same thing in five minutes is almost impossible. The requirement to organize our thoughts, and then express them succinctly in a convincing presentation of short duration, can be a very difficult task indeed.

And that’s why I like short stories. They’re the literary equivalent of the five-minute speech that takes so long to prepare—but hits the nail directly on the head.

Just like the mighty Tiny Tim. God bless us, everyone.

Vincent O'Neil

10 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for inviting me, gang!

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  2. This was a fun post, Vinny! I don't think I've ever said anything succinctly in my life. :-) Well done!

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  3. Hey Vinny! Your short story in QUARRY is wonderful--droll, surprising, clever and funny. And with real depth. (Oh, just like you!) Can't wait to read the new one.

    In reading QUARRY, it's so astonishing how different the stories are from each other. All those little explosions of story. I haven't been much of a short story reader until recently--and I do recommend it.

    Happy holidays, dear Stilettos! And to all!

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  4. Wonderful blog post! Short stories are tough. I need 5000 words just to get warmed up.

    Thanks for joining us today!

    Rhonda
    aka The Southern Half of Evelyn David

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  5. Vinny: I'm from a big Irish family where if one word will suffice, we use 50. Thank you for this great post. We love having men don the stilettos from time to time. Best wishes--Maggie (now wearing zebra-print stilettos while deciding what color to paint her bathroom--hoping for some inspiration)

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  6. Thought this was a great post. Spent the evening at a dinner with friends--hardly said a word, didn't need too, everyone else said plenty.

    Marilyn
    http://fictionforyou.com

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  7. Thanks for all the kind remarks! So glad you like the post.

    Quarry is a really great anthology, full of wonderful New England stories (especially Hank's tale of an overconfident philanderer)-- check it out if you get the chance.

    I just love the Irish Wolfhound in the Santa hat (see the rotating photos). My parents had one, and he had a great personality.

    As for wearing the stilettos, how does anybody stand these things? My feet are KILLING me!

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  8. Hi, Vinny, thanks for hanging out with us today! Hope you can survive another few hours in those stilettos (don't tell, but I've already taken mine off!). ;-) Like several of my Stiletto Sisters, I tend toward the verbose (brevity, what is that?). I think writing short stories is one of the hardest things to master, and I'd rather write 350 pages than 20. So you have my admiration!

    Cheers,
    Susan
    http://SusanMcBride.com

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  9. Short stories are tough for me, too. But so worth it when they work.

    I will look for the anthologies with your short stories, Vinny! Hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

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  10. Thanks, Meredith! Merry Christmas to you and to everyone who read / liked the blog!

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