Three short story lessons from Graham Greene

Graham Greene
Graham Greene

Who has two thumbs and loves Graham Greene? This girl!

Okay, that’s a bit annoying but it totally gets me into the subject at hand — short story writing.

Admittedly, I am not a short story writer. I write in the long form and it’s kinda annoying sometimes. Sometimes you just want to write something in one sitting and novelists — at least this novelist — likes to have things unfold in front of them as they go along. They take time and are surprised by what happens in their stories.

But what I’ve come to learn is that this is the same for short story writers too, except they keep writing and rewriting a short story over a period of time until it’s just right. The unfolding happens in a different way.


So, I picked up Graham Greene’s collection of short stories to see what I could learn from this master of storytelling. Here’s the long and short of it.

1.) And…action.

Greene starts all of his short stories in the middle of action. What I mean to say about this is not that the characters are in the middle of a stroll, but there are at the fork in the road of their lives. His characters are at the point when their lives are about to change and thus short stories are about THE moment.

For example, in the story The Second Death, Greene begins his story like this:

“She found me in the evening under the trees that grew outside the village. I had never cared for her and would have hidden myself if I’d seen her coming. She was to blame, I’m certain, for her son’s vices. If they were vices, but I’m very far from admitting that they were. At any rate he was generous, never mean, like others in the village I could mention if I chose.”

Notice how the start isn’t about how the evening was or the blossom on the trees. There is not any setting description at all. Greene gets on with the important stuff, the muck of the story — this relationship this character has with this woman and her son. In fact, this is so important that we don’t learn the names of the characters until much later in the story.

Also note that in the paragraph there’s some character development emerging. Since it’s first person point of view, we get the unfiltered thoughts of the main character toward others. It’s through those unfiltered thoughts that the reader learns not only about the disdain he has for others but there’s a window into his thought process — he’s not to blame for the “vices.”

2. ) There’s always something else going on

Greene is really good at this. In I Spy, the short short story (about a page and a half)  Charlie Stowe sneaks out of bed after he heard his mother snore. In a story that readers expect to be about Charlie’s unsupervised adventures in his house and his father’s attached cigar shop, the truth emerges in this passage:

“Charlie Stowe has no doubt, but he did not love his father; his father was unreal to him, a wraith, pale, thin, indefinite, who noticed him only spasmodically and left even punishment to his mother.”

Now, the story become about Charlie’s woes. But before the reader has had a chance to feel sorry for Charlie, he becomes a witness to his father’s demise. That’s when things change.

“He remembered how his father had held tight to his collar and fortified himself with proverbs, and he thought for the first time that, while his mother was boisterous and kindly, his father was very like himself, doing things in the dark which frightened him.”

Here’s where the lesson comes for the writer: this story is not about Charlie’s disdain for his father but the protagonist’s self-reflection. He saw his father in himself and therefore now we know what Charlie thinks about himself.

3.) It’s like this but somewhere else

How to say things without saying them? Symbolism helps. But you can also mirror a similar situation in other (typically secondary) characters. I like to call them parallels because it they parallel what is going in a certain part of the story. They also typically say the thing the character can’t and probably shouldn’t.

For this example, we go to Under the Garden when Wilditch leaves the doctors office with bad news. Real bad news. He’ll have to have a procedure done and he’s trying to keep a stiff upper lip. As he steps out into the world of “tall liver-coloured buildings” and “gusts of wind barely warmed by July” making the rain “aslant”, he overhears a conversation behind him.

“But it hurt,” the child’s voice said behind him.

“You make a fuss about nothing,” a mother–or a governess—replied.

After having a conversation with the doctor, Wilditch only hinted at how scared he was at the procedure he would have done. He’s scared about what it could mean about his quality of life, however, there is one fear he dare not speak about — the pain. It’s childish and he is not a child but a man. That’s where this parallel comes in. The reader doesn’t need to know the back story of these secondary characters; their purpose is to verbalize the fear. More than likely the reader had the same fear/question. Here is where the answer comes and response to it. Greene does this so effectively that he saves the character’s verbal fear and thoughts for later on in the story when he needs it.

So that’s what I learned from Greene so far about short story writing. I plan on finishing up a couple of more short stories before attempting my next one.

What are your tips for short story writing?

5 thoughts on “Three short story lessons from Graham Greene

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