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Short-Short Sighted — Bruce Holland Rogers

July 2008

The Fabulist’s Tale

  Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

Artwork : Photo courtesy of the author.

This column is the second in a series by Bruce Holland Rogers. You may also be interested in the next or first column.

In the next four columns, I want to introduce four different ways of approaching the writing of short-short stories: traditional forms, abstract narrative structures, fixed forms, and found forms. You might get the idea that I am setting up a well-ordered discussion of all the available forms for short-short stories. That would be an illusion. I can only hope to deliver a well-ordered foundation where at least a few walls might stand. The house itself will be a chaotic jumble, because so is the short-short story. To switch from a building metaphor to one of lineage: in the wild, these brief narratives cross-breed between each other and with other kinds of language; they absorb DNA from prose poems, pop culture, and the spoken word. Some of what’s interesting about short-short stories is that they often defy categories. Taxonomies fail.

But let’s start with taxonomy anyway, looking at a traditional form that is well-suited to writing a story of a few hundred words. Here’s my version of story that you may already know, particularly if you ever studied French:

Fox smelled a rare and delicious aroma. He followed where his nose led until he came to a clearing. On a high branch sat Crow holding a cheese in his beak. “Good day to you, sir!” said Fox. “I must say, one doesn’t come upon such a handsome fellow every day! Your feathers are splendid! Regal! Indeed, if your voice is as beautiful as your plumage, then not even the lark is your equal!”

Crow was overjoyed with these compliments, and to show off his beautiful song, he opened his beak. Down fell the cheese, and Fox snatched it up. “Listen up, pal,” said Fox. “Here’s a word of advice. Flatterers live at the expense of the flattered. This lesson is well worth a cheese, don’t you think?” With that, he swallowed his prize.

“Le Corbeau et le Renard” is at least three hundred years old and comes to us as one of the verse fables of the 17th-century poet Jean de La Fontaine. I say “at least” because even though we know this story as a La Fontaine original, fables existed as an oral tradition long before they were part of a literary one. La Fontaine may well have invented this fable from beginning to end, but he also might have heard a version of it, or of some other story that inspired him to present his own take on flattery. One good preparation for writing fables is reading fables, both traditional and literary ones.

Fables — stories in which non-human characters talk, reason, and interact in a way that teaches something about human folly — are an ancient form, but one that every generation of writers renews. They are almost always short enough to qualify as short-shorts.

The key element of a fable, the axis on which the story spins, is its moral, whether it is written out for the reader or not. Fables are didactic and unambiguous. If you’re not demonstrating a clear lesson, then your story may be fable-like, or it may be a parody of a fable, but it’s not the genuine article. Ambiguity is not the name of this particular literary game.

And if you want to write a fable, the moral is the best place to start. Well, at least that’s how I do it. It’s possible, though it seems backwards to me, to start with the story and then decide on what lesson it imparts. Go ahead and try. If I’m going to write a story that teaches a lesson, I have to choose the lesson first.

I find morals in three places: Observable Human Folly, Common Ideas That Are Wrong, and Traditional Wisdom.

The fabulist can see Observable Human Folly every day in his own actions and those of people around him. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t catch myself doing something foolish, and on the rare day when I am a paragon of virtue from dawn until dusk, chances are I encounter someone else doing something dumb. When you discover that you’ve been unwise, make a note of it. When you see people in an unnecessary confrontation, ask yourself what drives them to behave badly. What principle of wisdom are they forgetting? If you can sum that wisdom up in one sentence, you have a moral.

Long ago, in an essay about writing science fiction, author Frank Herbert noted that the culture around us is full of invented beliefs about how the world works. These are Common Ideas That Are Wrong. Herbert suggested keeping an eye out for these beliefs. When you read a best-selling novel, for example, what cultural assumptions does the novel convey? If parts of the book make you think, But the world doesn’t really work that way, then you’re encountering an opportunity to invent a moral that would counter the false assumption. Similarly, ideologues of all sorts say things that aren’t true, or at least aren’t as universal as they seem to believe. You can invent a moral that states the countervailing truth.

My favorite source of morals, though, is Traditional Wisdom, and I usually find pithy statements of traditional wisdom in proverbs. I read proverbs to consider whether I agree with the truth that they convey, in which case I have a ready-made moral. If I disagree, then I can invent a proverb or moral of my own that makes the opposite case.

For my story “The Bullfrog and His Shadows,” I started with a proverb: When you enter darkness, even your shadow deserts you. Often this statement is paired with the observation that God sticks around even when your shadow doesn’t, but the aspect of the proverb that appealed to me was simply that in bad times, even your shadow isn’t constant.

The basic story, then, is that a character has allies who pledge to stick by him but flee once the darkness and danger arrive. I wanted to set my story in the New World, which narrowed the list of animals that could be characters.

The outline of this story was pretty straightforward, but sometimes as you develop a plot it helps if you have read a lot of other traditional tales. For instance, in one unpublished fable, “Rabbit’s Plan,” the title character needs a plan for killing a mountain lion. I knew of a traditional Indian tale where a goat tricks a tiger into jumping into a well to fight his reflection, so that supplied me with Rabbit’s strategy (a strategy which in my story, sadly for Rabbit, does not work).

Exactly how I went from that basic outline to choosing my animals, I’m not sure. It may be that once I settled on New World animals, I thought of raccoons and then considered what animals raccoons like to eat. Or I might have thought first of the frogs because frogs do seem to hold councils, as anyone will know after visiting a summer pond at night when the frogs are debating. In any case, once I had the cast of characters, the story almost wrote itself. The frogs had to demonstrate their cowardice. The bullfrog had to be convinced of their pledges to stick by him. And then the raccoon had to demonstrate the bullfrog’s folly in allowing himself to be convinced. The story had three parts.

I added to the cast of characters because the confrontation with the heron allows the frogs to reveal their cowardice. I added the kits to show that the bullfrog was unquestionably overmatched by the opposition. So my cast expanded, but only for the sake of “making the argument” in the story.

When you cast a fable, by the way, choose your cast logically. If the story is about animals, then use animals who would actually live in the same place. If your characters are inanimate objects, make them all objects that “live” in a closet, and don’t introduce an egg beater unless its exotic role as an awkward immigrant is the point of the story.

Ideally, a fable is only as long as it needs to be, but “How long does it need to be?” doesn’t always have an obvious answer. La Fontaine told his fable above in few words, but it relies on the reader’s knowledge that crows have plain black feathers and are not great singers. Readers won’t always remember what you hope they will about your animal or inanimate characters, so the writer can assure making the right impact by occasionally showing the reader their salient characteristics. This adds words, but by conveying these characteristics through incident, you make sure that you are at least adding entertaining words.

Once you have written the body of your story, consider how to deliver your moral. With “Rabbit’s Plan,” the moral, A secret shared is no secret, does not appear on the page because I didn’t need it. The story’s meaning was clear without it, and the moral itself wasn’t sufficiently interesting. But if the moral is charming or pretty or funny in its own right, leaving it in the story has the added benefit of adhering to the traditions of the form, reminding the reader that this little tale was, indeed, a fable.

The moral can pull its weight, then, not just by what it says, but how it says it. The fox states La Fontaine’s moral, so it’s part of the narrative and also reveals the fox’s character. The shift of tone when Fox says “Listen up, pal” demonstrates that Fox has dropped the mask of subordinate politeness, which he wore only until he had the cheese.

The moral of “The Bullfrog and His Shadows” is a rhyming couplet, a different way of embellishing the moral so that it’s not just restating what the reader has already learned from the story.

Finally, one aspect of fables is that they can be updated or retold to make them especially cogent for the author’s times or concerns. One of “my” stories is “The Wolf and the Lamb,” one of Aesop’s, and I published it with the byline “Retold by Bruce Holland Rogers.” Retelling that story, putting the moral in my own words, was a way of bringing to readers a story that seemed to speak from Aesop’s time to our own. In the story, the Wolf keeps trying to find a justification for eating a lamb. At the time of my retelling, the White House kept changing its justifications for invading Iraq, apparently trying to find the most palatable one.

So invent an original fable, or re-tell an old one that seems suited for the times. If you’re efficient, limiting your characters and action to what you really need, you can leave the reader feeling both amused and wise.

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About the Author

Bruce Holland Rogers

The eyes of Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.

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