by Craig Buchner
I have a vivd memory from graduate school at Western Carolina, almost 20 years ago. My thesis director commented on my final project, a collection of a few short stories. He said that the details I chose in those stories were particularly precise and thoughtful. At that time in my writing development, I was including details that quickly came to mind, and I would settle on one or maybe two details within a scene to highlight—choosing efficiency of language over any greater world building. At the time, it was easier to write in a more clipped, Hemingway-style, and it saved time so I could focus more energy on developing the narrative and plot.
Two decades on—after publishing two books—I still write like this, but it isn’t for the same reasons. Instead, I realize that a focused detail or two can add a deeper layer or dimension to a story.
For example, in my collection of short stories Brutal Beasts I include a story called “Held in Place by Teeth that Face Inward,” in which the protagonist goes to a dive bar with his brother after said brother is arrested. While the brother orders “two Mich Lights and two shots of Fireball,” the protagonist settles on a Sprite “with a slice of lime if you got it.” This drink choice allows me, the author, to establish that the protagonist is sober and moreover that he carries a backstory far more nuanced than the present story at hand. The protagonist makes choices in the scene based on a history he carries, yet that history never has to be explicitly told.
For me, this example illustrates that a well chosen, intentional detail can carry a significant amount of weight within a story that, if positioned well, can establish tension within a scene and between characters, and it supersedes unnecessary backstory or a lengthly explanation, which might slow down the story too much. Too many specific details, in this view, can dilute a scene, leaving a reader to wonder where they should focus their attention, and ultimately lose sight of a key detail that might come back later in the story to reinforce a climactic moment.
I’ve always been attracted to brevity in stories, but it’s taken me a couple decades to understand the true power of it within storytelling. So, I leave you with this thought: Details matter, but not all of them. Choose wisely!
Learn Short Story Writing with Craig
BEGINNING NEXT TUESDAY: “Writing the Short Story,” three Tuesdays, September 26, October 3 & 10, 6:00-8:00 p.m., virtual via Zoom.
“Cut the piano in half with a chainsaw.” How can this advice influence us to write the best short stories? In this three-week course, we’ll learn how to write a captivating scene for a short story, and explore what a successful scene should accomplish. We will also break down the essential elements of a short story, including character, setting, and dialogue. In lieu of workshopping, writing exercises will give students opportunities to apply these lessons to their own work. And what about that “piano”? We’ll hear that story in the first class!. Info
Craig Buchner holds an M.F.A. from the University of Idaho and a M.A. in English from Western Carolina University. He’s taught writing at Brevard College, Washington State University, and Portland Community College. His debut collection of short stories, Brutal Beasts (NFB Publishing), was chosen as an “Indie Book of the Year” in 2022 by Kirkus Reviews. He is also the author of the novel Fish Cough (Buckman Press), which was named an “Indie Books We Love” by LoveReading in 2023. Craig lives with his family in Charlotte.