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The Building Blocks of the Short Story

The short story writer and the novelist use the same tools to engage their reader, however, the short story writer is deprived of the luxury of length. Consequently, short stories revolve around one main character, a crisis and a resolution. James Baldwin portrays the journey from addict to musician in “Sonny’s Blues”; Alice Munro looks at corporal punishment though a child’s eyes in “Royal Beatings”; and Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes a woman’s mental decline in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. This essay identifies narrative voice, character development and conflict as essential building blocks of a fully realized short story.

The point of view from which a story is told is a reader’s first exposure to the story itself. The narrative voice creates expectation of what is to come and inspires attitudes towards characters and events. In “Sonny’s Blues”, the narrator is a man who has pulled himself from the slums of his childhood to become a high school math teacher and it is clear that he thinks Sonny can become more than and addict, or even a musician. Before a reader is apprised of what the narrator has read in the newspaper, the reader is exposed to his response: he “was scared, scared for Sonny”. Even though Sonny is the main character, a reader’s view is coloured by the narrator’s disapproval and impatience with Sonny throughout the story. “Royal Beatings” opens with a child’s over-dramatic vision of the beating promised by her stepmother. Readers are caught up in the scenario of “a tree-lined avenue, a crowd of formal spectators, some white horses and black slaves.” The reality from Rose’s point of view is equally as vivid: ‘bang over the ear, then bang over the other ear”. Readers are at once fascinated by the details and terrified for the child. In “The Yellow Wallpaper”, the narrator starts off as a woman adamant that her husband is wrong about her illness. Readers sympathize with her imposed restrictions and are engaged by her confiding tone. In a short story, the narrator is more than a storyteller; a narrator can shape the reader's responses, suspend a reader's disbelief and encourage deeper insight.

Once a point of view is established, readers tune into the characters of a story, following interactions and anticipating progress. The addict, the naughty child and the ailing woman are intriguing characters, made all the more intriguing as readers follow their development. Sonny evolves from an innocent child, to troubled teen to rehab patient to a blues pianist. Rose emerges from her turbulent childhood to become a responsible adult. The new mother and budding writer in “The Yellow Wallpaper” deteriorates into madness. The satisfying short story draws readers into the lives of the protagonist: their success and failures, their happiness and grief. A successful short story writer creates a multi-dimensional protagonist that encourages readers to explore unfamiliar territory.

Conflict is the engine in a short story, the element that inspires character development and advancing of the plot. There is the difference in opinions between Sonny and his brother; the tension between Rose and her stepmother; and the mental conflict of the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper. This unease prompts both crisis and resolution. Much is revealed about a protagonist by the way he or she deals with conflict. Sonny and Rose fight back; “The Yellow Wallpaper” protagonist gives in to her husband's wishes.

A fully realized short story uses narrative voice, character development and conflict to bring people, places and plots to life. Baldwin, Munro and Gilman create characters that spring to life in readers’ imaginations because of what the characters have experienced. Sonny had to hit rock bottom before struggling to the top. The protagonist lost her battle against mental illness in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper. These are very human characters dealing with very human issues.

(c) Kristy Kassie, September 10, 2008


James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues

Alice Munro, “Royal Beatings ”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper

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