After having numerous events in my own life I was reminded, recently, of an important aspect of writing by the words of one of the lecturers at BCU: that all ‘writing is an artifice’ (R. Thompson). Life throws myriads of strange things at you; indeed sometimes it seems that numerous momentous interactions or events seem to happen at once, so that you only react to one, or two… or none. ‘Bad things happens in threes’ is one triusm that all too often seems true.
In a short story, though (unless you’re writing about bad things happening in threes, of course), just a single, dramatic event can cause mayhem and our reaction to it exposed. At the same ICCW afternoon, Helen Cross stressed that having more than one significant or horrific event in a story just means we become inured to the horror or despair – it is likely to have the opposite effect than intended. Piling death, abuse, suicide and horrors on top of each other can even become comic.
It’s a trap we can all fall into and far too easily. It’s like writing dialogue exactly as it might be said, with all the hesitations pauses and repetitions. Whilst an insider (one who has experienced the events) may well say ‘Yes, all these momentous events can happen and this really is how I reacted’, an outsider (one who has not) can struggle to comprehend how the insider coped at all. For insiders it is just one event, out of all those that took place, that stays in their mind and the others fade into the background.
When reading about these events, though, we do not feel like the insider: we are overwhelmed by the amount of tragedy. It is the writer’s job to prevent us being drowned by detail and make us understand how the insider felt and about what. In that, the numerous, unimportant events can be completely removed in order to focus on the one event or situation that was so dramatic to the principle (whoever they are – the protagonist, perhaps).
For short stories, in particular, this is key. I have a suspicion that it might be the same for longer stories, too.