Chekhov’s Six Short Story Principles

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Anton Chekhov’s six aspects of fiction make for good revision guidelines.

I’ve been working on short stories lately, and every time I sit down to revise one, I’m reminded of how difficult they are. In my MFA workshops, my short stories were shot so full of holes that revising them seemed pointless. Once a teacher told me, “This story, in my view, can’t be fixed.” When you get a comment like that, you remember it well enough to put it in firm quotes.

Still, even with stories that “can’t be fixed,” I revise for a couple of months, then take my lessons from the failed story and start a newer, better story. Progress on my overall skill level was (and is) like watching an enormous file download very slowly.

In my novel and memoir workshops at UNCW, however, the feedback was much better, which makes me wonder why I’m even trying to write short stories when I should be playing to my strengths.

Because short stories are damned awesome, that’s why. I’ve read quite a few good ones lately and have a few well-reviewed collections on my shortlist now, including Tenth of December by George Saunders and Bobcat by Rebecca Lee (who was on my thesis committee at UNCW).

When I’m wrestling with a new short story, I tend to pick up my copy of Anton Chekhov’s stories (the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation). The stories seem so pure that I can’t help but find myself going back to basics, scanning my own stories once for character, once for plot, once for dialogue, once for setting, etc. But perhaps the most helpful part of this book is the introduction, in which Chekhov’s writing advice is quoted.

According to Chekhov, there are six aspects of a good story: “1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality: flee the stereotype; 6. compassion.”

These are helpful guidelines for revision. Perhaps my favorite of these is the last, “compassion.” That’s because it’s the most complex rule here. It asks us to avoid needlessly heaping pain and suffering on our characters. We can make them suffer, sure, but there’s got to be a clear reason for it. So I ask: Are my characters victims of my imagination? Or are they heroic in their suffering?

I’ll have one of my own stories reviewed by the BWW on Wednesday. I will admit that it’s an odd story, but after hearing so many good things about “Break and Enter” at the Book Launch Party last April, I’m wondering if I’ve turned the corner on short stories, or if I’m still writing stuff that “can’t be fixed.” Either way, I’ll wrestle with it for a few months, take my lessons, and move on.

About Peter Biello

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered on New Hampshire Public Radio and a writer of short stories, novels, book reviews, and essays. He's also the host of The Bookshelf, a series of interviews with authors from or writing about the Granite State.
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