How To Learn From The Best Short Story Writers


Read And Learn From The Best

Last week we discussed scenes in short stories and I suggested some homework. This week I want to work through one of the stories I read and discuss some of my favourite parts.

I read The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx. It is awesome and I really suggest you read it. After you have read it, look at my comments below. It’s long, about 7000 words, but so worth it. She is a master storyteller.

Let’s break it down:

  1. Beginning: Mero is 83. His brother dies. He lives across the country and decides to drive to his brother’s funeral. It’ll take him four days to get there.
  2. Middle: Mero is old and he must drive very far, he is troubled by traffic, police officers, car crashes and a snow storm. As he drives memories of why he left his family home come back to him. A story is told through the backstory by his father’s girlfriend.
  3. End: Mero achieves his goal. He reaches the ranch, but the car gets stuck and the story ends with Mero overwhelmed by the cold and old age. He sees an image from the story his father’s girlfriend told as the story ends.

Identify the following five elements in your story:

  1. Plot: Eighty-three-year-old Mero drives across the country to attend his estranged brother’s funeral. He confronts his past, his relationships and his reasons for leaving over sixty years ago.
  2. Characters: Present: Mero, Louise, Louise’s husband, Tick and a Cop. Past: his brother, his father, the girlfriend, an anthropologist.
  3. Goal and Conflict: To go to his brother’s funeral. Physical conflict: old age, distance, weather, diet. Emotional: he left on bad terms and has not seen his family in 60 years.
  4. Theme: You can run as far as you want, but you have to go home eventually.
  5. Setting: As with almost all of Proulx’s stories setting has a huge impact on this story. Almost every description foreshadows Mero’s demise.

Give your opinion:

Author’s style: This is pure Proulx. The writing is vivid. The tale is raw, uncomfortable and unbearably human.
Tone of the story: The story is dark and melancholy. We don’t like Mero, but we pity him.
Use of the senses: Her vivid descriptions bring the story to life. The steer, the cold, the over cooked eggs.
Do you like the story? I liked the story, but it is not a happy story.
Is it coherent? Yes, it is coherent and elegant.

Here are a few of my favourite parts:

Description:

There are many more examples, but I love this paragraph:

In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns. He’d got himself out of there in 1936, had gone to a war and come back, married and married again (and again), made money in boilers and air-duct cleaning and smart investments, retired, got into local politics a and outgain without scandal, never circled back to see the old man and Rollo, bankrupt and ruined, because he knew they were.

This dialogue:

You have to pay attention to the dialogue. She doesn’t use quotation marks and flits between dialogue and internal thoughts. You can tell a lot about the characters through this conversation.

One of those damp mornings the nail-driving telephone voice of a woman said she was Louise, Tick’s wife, and summoned him back to Wyoming. He didn’t know who she was, who Tick was, until she said, Tick Corn, your brother Rollo’s son, and that Rollo had passed on, killed by a waspy emu, though prostate cancer was waiting its chance. Yes, she said, you bet Rollo still owned the ranch. Half of it anyway. Me and Tick, she said, we been pretty much running it the past ten years.
An emu? Did he hear right?
Yes, she said. Well, of course you didn’t know. You heard of Wyoming Down Under?
He had not. And thought, What kind of name is Tick? He recalled the bloated gray insects pulled off the dogs. This tick probably thought he was going to get the whole damn ranch and bloat up on it. He said, What the hell is this about an emu? Were they all crazy out there?

Flashbacks:

When you read, pay close attention to how she switches between the past and present. It is effortless and she is brilliant at it.

Back story:

This is a story about the events of the past. We spend a lot of time reading about his youth. Every part she included is needed and necessary. The story that the girlfriend tells is at once horrific and mesmerising.

Character description:

Her writing is brilliant. Her descriptions are unique, radiant and she manages to evoke a sense of setting, show character, and advance the story. Every word does several jobs.

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