by Dustin M. Hoffman
Occasionally, I get jealous of other artistic mediums.
All we have to tell our stories are these words on the page, black ink on a white page. This can seem like a disadvantage when looking at the explosive, varied forms of expression the other mediums wield. Sadly, we just won’t be able to pull off some content as well as other mediums. Paintings will always be more vivid and colorful than our best descriptions. Songs will always be more musical than our most lyrical lines. Movies, with their special effects and booming soundtracks, will create more intense fight scenes and car crashes and romantic stares with movie screens picturing eyeballs as big as boulders.
So, then, what do we do best?
I’ll always argue that interiority is our advantage over all other mediums. No other art can tunnel inside the mind as naturally as written story. No other medium can unwrap psychological complexity as fully. Where voiceover is corny in a movie, it’s organic and powerful in literature.
The short story especially guides effective interiority writing with its emphasis on compression. We don’t have space to waste when conciseness is key. But even if we’re aiming to imply a large portion of the psychological complexity through a minimalist Hemingway style, there’s still plenty of room and need to explore the mind. We certainly don’t want to rely solely on shorthand emotional abstractions: “She was depressed/elated/angered/etc.” And we don’t want to use interiority to redundantly explain what a vivid character action effectively shows.
Instead, we should lean into using interiority to enhance crucial narrative elements like tension. Character motivation grants stakes to story, for example, and is most richly explored in the mind. Motivation is emphasized by the level of desire, another internalized quality. Tension is further emphasized by a character’s anxiety—how much they worry about and over what they most want. Of course, this is just the thrilling start to all interiority can offer us on the page.
Interiority is one of our most potent tools, and through its effective use, we can pull off a story those other mediums can only envy.
Dustin M. Hoffman is the author of the story collection One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. His second collection No Good for Digging and chapbook Secrets of the Wild were published by Word West Press. He spent 10 years painting houses in Michigan before getting his MFA from Bowling Green State University and his Ph.D. from Western Michigan University. More than 80 of his stories have appeared in magazines. He is an associate professor of English at Winthrop University in South Carolina.
Learn the Art and Craft of the Short Story: Dustin M. Hoffman leads “Writing the Short Story” in Charlotte Lit’s Studio Two, two Tuesdays, September 6 and 13, 6:30-8:30 pm. Four seats left! Info / Register