What is story? What makes a story a story? Is it plot, action, conflict, character, narrator, climax, structure, protagonist, antagonist? Ask yourselves what you look for when you read—what you think is absolutely, positively, undoubtedly, irrefutably essential to a story. Got it yet?
Good, now gather up your definitions and tilt them into the garbage.
Ask yourselves another question. What is writing? Putting pen to paper or pixels on a screen? Is it blending letters that birth words that birth worlds? Creation? All or none of the above?
As writers and readers, these are the questions we need to ask ourselves. We need to challenge the conventional, push the envelope, go against the grain (and all other clichés that writers shouldn’t use on pain of literary death—check out Cole’s post, “When Boeing decides to subsidize swine, will Southwest paint its purple over pink?” for some incentive against platitudes).
To open up your expectations on the above, try exploring the strange and the unusual. There’s a lot of weirdness out there waiting for you to find it. Think stories written like dictionary or encyclopedia entries, stories that imitate research papers, stories that by every conventional standard aren’t stories. Look at some metafiction (try wrapping your head around fiction that tries to disprove itself) to confuse and inspire. Get your hands on anything unusual for sources of craft analysis and then try creating some strange fiction yourself.
Some examples yours truly can vouch for:
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius by Jorge Luis Borges: A fantastically weird and unpronounceable title for a fantastically mind-blowing and undefinable tale. The story of a man who discovers an Encyclopedia that brings into existence a new country. This one reads like the leftover writings of an academic (false citations and footnotes included) and mixes the fictional with the actual— to identify fact from fabrication, have Google on hand folks, you’ll need it. Not only will Borges twist your brain into knots, bowties, and pretzels, but he’ll make you question craft, and if you really get into it, the truth of your reality.
Zoellner’s Definition by Murray Bail: A story written like the pages of a dictionary. Incredibly, you’ll not only get a sense of who Zoellner is, what his issues are, and how his life evolved, but you’ll also end on a note that makes you wonder if Bail just played a tremendous joke on you (this is where the metafiction comes in).
Lust by Susan Minot: A promiscuous little piece written in snippets called “crots” (yes, it is a funny word). This one starts of unapologetic and vapid—with a chronology that will spin you in circles, but surprisingly make plenty of sense—then darkens into a heavy bit of angst.
Girl by Jamaica Kincaid: If you’ve ever taken any creative writing courses, chances are you’ve already been told to write a story in one sentence. Here’s where your professors might have gotten the inspiration for it. In Girl, Kincaid puts her semicolons through Boot Camp when she shows us the scathing advice a mother offers her daughter.
Deforming Forms: Outlier Short Stories and How They Work by Richard Farell: This one’s an essay rather than a story—though considering my argument, you’re free to refute that. Check this out for a more thorough analysis of unconventional fiction.
You want more examples? Kindly look them up yourselves; this is as far as I go.
Thanks for reading, until next time, take care, be safe, write lots, read more, etc.
P.S. Special thanks to Jane Alison, creative writing instructor at the U, for the inspiration behind this post.