Notes On the Art of Writing Stories

by Juan Bosch
translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph

Translator's Note: Readers with some knowledge of essays on writing may find a sense of familiarity with the rhetoric Bosch uses to express his ideas on the craft of short fiction. This is probably because they predate him. In May, 1842, Edgar Allan Poe published a review of Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales in Graham’s Magazine. The ideas elaborated in this review became a lodestone around which the North American short story tradition grew magnetized. The key passage from this review reads: “A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents — he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided.” The concept of a “single effect” is still popular with teachers of the craft of short fiction, which is what Bosch was.

This essay was stitched together from a series of lectures on story writing given at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, hence its repetitiveness and pedagogical tone. The single note I feel compelled to make is on the choice of the translation “single event” for Bosch’s “un hecho.” The assonance with Poe’s “single effect” was too perfect to ignore, though the word “hecho” may have been better suited with a more subtle translation, as it means a variety of things throughout the essay. Adding to this need was the historical congruence of the publication of Julio Cortázar’s translation of the Complete Stories and Prose of Edgar Allen Poe, in 1956. As connections to this volume appear, what seems more and more doubtless is the influence Cortázar’s translation had on Latin American fiction in the second-half of the 20th Century.

Notes on the Art of Writing Stories, by Juan Bosch

The story is an ancient genre that over the centuries has gained and maintained the public favor. It’s influence in the development of general sensibility can be great, and for that reason the storyteller should feel responsible for what he writes, as though he were a teacher of emotions or ideas.

The first thing a person with the inclination to write stories should clarify is the intensity of his vocation. No one who doesn’t have the vocation of a storyteller can come to write good stories. The second refers to the genre. What is a story? A response has become so difficult that it has frequently been evaded even by excellent critics, but it can be affirmed that a story is the account of an event which has undeniable importance. The importance of the event is immediately relative, and should be undeniable and convincing to general readers. If the incident which forms the heart of the story lacks importance, what has been written can be a description, a scene, a print, but it is not a story.

Here “importance” does not mean novelty, a strange case, a singular occurrence. The propensity to choose uncommon subjects as themes for stories can lead to a deformation similar to what professional athletes suffer in their muscle structure; a child going to school isn’t promising material for a story because there is nothing important is his daily trip to class, but the story has substance if the bus the child is in flips over or crashes, or if upon reaching school the child learns that the teacher is sick or that the school house had burned the night before.

Learning to discern where there is a theme for a story is an essential part of technique. This technique is the innate craft that moves the skeleton of every creative work; it’s the “tekné” of the Greeks, or, if you like, the indispensable tool in the artist’s equipment.

Except in rare cases, a good story writer takes years to control the technique of the genre, and the technique is acquired with practice more than with study. But he should never forget that the genre has a technique and that he should know it completely. The word story means to give an account of something. It comes from the Latin computus, and it is useless to try to avoid the essential significance that rings in the origins of words. A person can give an account of something with Roman numbers, with Arabic numbers, with algebraic signs; but the person must give the account. He cannot forget certain quantities or ignore specific values. To give an account is to cling to what is being recounted. The person who can’t give an account of an event with words is not a storyteller.

Incidentally, once the technique is acquired, the storyteller can choose his own path, can be “hermetic,” or “figurative,” as they say, or subjective or objective, which comes out the same; he can apply his personal style, present his work from his individual angle, express himself as he sees fit. But he shouldn’t forget that the genre, understood in every language as the most difficult, only tolerates innovations from those who control its most basic structures.

The interest stories evoke can be measured by the reviews they earn from critics, storytellers and aficionados. It is often said that the story is a shortened novel, and that the novel requires more vigor from its writer. In reality the two genres are distinct things, and it’s more difficult to write a good book of stories than a good novel. Comparing ten pages of a story to some two-hundred-fifty pages in a novel is tactless. A novel of that size can be written in two months; a book of stories that is good and that has some two-hundred-fifty pages cannot be managed in such short time. The fundamental difference between one genre and the other is in their direction: the novel is extensive, the story intensive.

The novelist creates characters and often succeeds in having them rebel, so they act according to their own nature in a way that makes the novel not end the way the novelist had planned, but as the text’s characters determine through their actions. In the story the situation is different; the story has to be a work that’s exclusively the storyteller’s. He is the parent and the dictator of his children, he can’t set them free or tolerate rebellions. The storyteller’s willingness to control his characters translates into tension, and therefore into intensity. A story’s intensity is not a result owed, as someone said, to its brevity; it is the fruit of the sustained will with which the storyteller works his text. This may be the reason why the genre is so difficult, since the storyteller must exercise constant vigilance over himself that is not managed without mental and emotional discipline, and this is not easy.

Fundamentally, the storyteller’s mindset has to be the same in choosing his material as in writing. Selecting material for a story demands effort, capacity to concentrate, and analytical work. Often some theme seems more attractive than another; but the theme should be seen not in its primitive state, but as if it had already been elaborated. From the first moment the storyteller should see his material organized thematically as if the story were already written; this requires almost as much strain as writing.

The true storyteller dedicates many hours of his life to studying the genre’s technique, to the degree that he manages to control it the same way that a conscious painter controls the brushstroke: by touch, not having to premeditate it. This technique doesn’t imply a surprise ending, as is often thought. What is fundamental is to hold the reader’s interest, and therefore to sustain a dipless tension, the driving force with which the events produce themselves. The surprise ending is not an imperative condition of a good story. There are great storytellers, like Anton Chekhov, who barely used it. Horacio Quiroga’s “A la deriva” doesn’t have one, and it’s a masterpiece. A forcefully-imposed surprise ending destroys other good elements of a story. So then, a story should have as natural an ending as its beginning.

It doesn’t matter if the story is subjective or objective, if the author’s style is deliberately clear or dark, direct or indirect; the story should begin by drawing in the reader. Once the reader’s interest is caught, it’s in the storyteller’s hands and he should not release it again. From the start the storyteller should be unforgiving with his text’s subject; he will drive it mercilessly toward the destiny he has plotted beforehand; he won’t allow the slightest deviation. A single phrase, even three words long, that is not logically and lovingly justified by that destiny will stain the story and take away its brilliance and force. Kipling said that for him it was more important what he left out than what he left in. Quiroga said that a story is an arrow shot at a target, and we know that the arrow that strays will not reach the target.

The natural way to begin a story was always “there once was” or “once upon a time.” That short phrase had—and still has among country people—the power of an incantation; that alone was enough to grab the interest of those who surrounded the storyteller. In its origin, the story did not begin with descriptions of landscapes, unless it was a landscape described with few words to justify the presence or actions of the protagonist; it began with him, describing him through action. Even today, this is a good way of beginning. A story should begin with the protagonist in action, physical or psychological, but still action; the beginning shouldn’t be situated at much distance from the actual heart of the story, to avoid tiring the reader.

Knowing how to begin a story is as important as knowing how to finish it. The serious storyteller tirelessly studies and practices the beginnings of stories. The first phrase holds the enchantment of a good story; it determines the rhythm and tension of the piece. A story that begins well almost always ends well. The author is bound to himself to maintain the level of his creation at the height at which he began it. There is only one correct way to begin a story: by suddenly grabbing the reader’s interest. The ancient “there once was” or “once upon a time” has to be substituted with something that has the same power of incantation. The young storyteller should carefully study the way in which the great masters begin their stories; he should read, one by one, the first paragraphs of the best stories by Maupassant, Kipling, Sherwood Anderson, and Quiroga, who was probably the most conscious of these about what the technique of the story refers to.

Beginning a story well and taking it to its end without a single digression, without defect, without detour: this, in few words, is the nucleus of the technique of the story. The person who knows how to do this has the craft of the storyteller, recognizes the “tekné” of the genre. The craft is the formal part of the work, but the person who doesn’t control the formal side won’t become a good storyteller. Only the person who controls it will be able to transform the story, improve it with a new modality, illuminate it with the touch of his creative personality.

This craft is necessary for the person who tells stories in an Arabic market and for the person writing them in a Paris library. There’s no way to know it without exerting it. No one is born knowing it, although on occasion a born storyteller can produce a good story through artistic divination. Craft is the product of assiduous work, of constant thought, of passionate dedication. Storytellers of appreciable qualities for narration have lost their gift because while they had ideas inside them they wrote without stopping to study the technique of the story and they never controlled it; when the well inside them dried up, they lacked the capacity to complicate, with subjects external to their intimate experience, a story’s delicate architecture. They didn’t acquire the craft in time, and without it they couldn’t construct.

When he is starting out the storyteller creates in a state of semi-consciousness. The action imposes itself on him; the characters and their circumstances drag him along; a torrent of sharp words pours through him. While this mind state lasts the storyteller has to begin learning techniques to control the beautiful and disordered world overwhelming his interior life. Knowing technique will allow him to rule over his heady passion like Yahweh over the chaos. It’s in the time taken to study the basics that the profession of storyteller resides, and it should be taken without waste. The principles of the genre, regardless of what some young writers think, are unchangeable, at least to the extent that humanity is.

The search for and selection of material is an important part of the technique; from the search and selection will come the theme. It seems that those two words—search and selection—imply the same thing: to search is to select. But it’s not like that for the storyteller. He’ll search for what his soul seeks: motifs of the country or of the sea, scenes about men from small towns or about children, the subject of love or of work. Once the material has been picked up, he’ll choose the one that is best reconciled with his general outlook on life and with the type of story he’s trying to write.

This part of the work is deeply personal; no one can intervene in it. Often people approach the novelist or storyteller to recount things that happened to them, “themes for novels or stories” that don’t interest the writer because they don’t speak to his sensibility. But although no one should intervene in thematic selection, there is some useful advice that can be given to young storytellers: to study the material minutely and seriously, to conscientiously study the setting of their story, the characters and their context, their interior life, and their livelihood.

Writing stories is serious and even beautiful work. Difficult art has its reward in its own realization. There’s much to say about this. But what’s most important is this: the person born with the calling to be a storyteller brings to the world a talent which he is obligated to put in service of society. The only way to fulfill this obligation is to cultivate his natural talents, and to do this he must learn everything relevant to his craft: what a story is and what should be done to write good stories. If he faces his calling seriously he will study conscientiously, he will work, he will toil to master his genre, which is, without a doubt, very unruly yet masterable. Others have done it. He too can manage it.

The story is a simple literary genre, and to that end a story should not be built upon more than one event. The storyteller, like the aviator, doesn’t take flight to go wherever, or even to two places at once; he is forced to know where he’s going with certainty before he puts his hands on the levers that move his machine.

The first task a storyteller should impose on himself is to learn to distinguish precisely what event can be the theme of a story. Having gotten a theme, and studied it minutely and responsibly, he should know how to isolate it, how to remove any veneer until it is left free of everything that isn’t a legitimate expression of its substance. When a storyteller has before him an event in its most authentic state, he has a true theme. The event is the theme, and in the story there is only room for one theme.

I’ve already said that learning to discern where there is a theme for a story is an essential aspect of story technique. Understood in the sense of the Greek “tekné,” technique is the indispensable aspect of craft or artistry for making a work of art. Now then, the art of the story consists in situating one’s self toward an event and driving toward it resolutely, without giving importance to incidents that mark the path toward the event; all these incidents are subordinate to the event the storyteller is moving toward; this is the theme.

With the theme isolated and duly studied from every angle, the storyteller can approach it however he wants, directly or indirectly, with language that is habitual or instinctual. But at no time can he forget that he’s driving toward that event and nowhere else. Any word that could categorize as theme an incident presented en route to the theme, any word that diverts the author a millimeter from the theme, is out of place and should be rubbed out as soon as it appears; every idea foreign to the chosen subject is a weed, which won’t let the story’s shoots grow healthy, and weeds, the Gospel tells us, should be pulled up from their roots.

When the storyteller keeps the event from the reader’s attention, removing it phrase by phrase from the sight of the person reading, yet maintains its presence in the depths of the narrative and only reveals it with surprise in the last five or six words of the story, he’s built the story in accordance with the genre’s best tradition. But the cases in which this can be done without deforming the narrative’s natural course are not abundant. Much more important than a surprise ending is maintaining the continuous flow that takes it from the point of departure to the event chosen as the theme. If the event occurs before reaching the end, that is to say, if its occurrence doesn’t coincide with the last scene in the story, but the manner in which it was reached was direct, and the flow kept an appropriate rhythm, a good story has been produced.

The opposite results if the storyteller is driving toward two events; in that case the course will zigzag, the path won’t be straight, and what the storyteller will end up with is a confusing page, without character; it can be anything, but not a story. A little while ago I noted that story means to give an account of something. The origin of the word that defines the genre is in the Latin word computus, the same that today we use to indicate giving an account of something. There is a hidden, mathematical meaning in the rigor of the story; as in mathematics, in the story there cannot be confusion of values.

The skilled storyteller knows that his task is to take the reader toward the event he’s chosen as the theme, and that he should take him without saying what the event is. On occasion it is useful to distract the reader’s attention, making him believe, through a discreet phrase, that the event is something else. In every paragraph, the reader should think he’s reached the heart of the theme, though he’s not there and hasn’t even begun to enter the circle of shadows or light that separates the event from the rest of the narrative.

The story should be presented to the reader like a fruit with numerous rinds that peel away before the eyes of a sweet-toothed child. Every time one of the rinds begins to fall away, the reader will expect the pulp of the fruit; he’ll believe there are no more layers and the time has come to enjoy the heavenly nectar. From paragraph to paragraph, the story’s internal and secret action will proceed below the external and visible action; it will be hidden by the incidental actions, by activity that in reality has no other end but driving the reader toward the event. In short, they will be rinds that upon peeling, bring the fruit closer to the mouth of the sweet-toothed child.

Now then, as far as the event that defines the theme, what should its subject be? Human, or at least humanized. The storyteller attempts to offend the sensibilities or stimulate the ideas of his reader; then, direct himself to the reader through his feelings or thoughts. In Aesop’s fables as in the stories of Rudyard Kipling, in the children’s tales of Andersen as in Oscar Wilde’s parables, animals, elements and objects have a human soul. Man’s intimate experience has not moved beyond his own essence; for him the infinite universe and all measurable matter exist as a reflection of his self. In spite of the growing humility science submits him to, he’ll continue being, for a long time to come, the king of creation, who lives in organic service of the supreme lord of activity in the universe. Nothing interests man more than man himself. The best theme for a story will always be a human event, or at least something recounted in essentially human terms.

The selection of the theme is serious work and must be taken on with sincerity. The storyteller should train himself in the art of distinguishing precisely when a theme is appropriate for a story. The natural talents of the narrator come into play in this part of the work. As it happens, the story begins to form in this event, in the instant of selection of the subject-theme. For this reason alone, the theme is not actually the germ of a story, but become this germ precisely at the moment the storyteller chooses it as the theme.

If the theme does not satisfy certain conditions, the story will be poor or frankly bad, though its author perfectly control the manner it’s presented in. The picturesque, for example, doesn’t qualify to serve as a theme; on the other hand it can be one, and a good one, for a slice of life or a funnies page.

Themes require a specific weight that make them universal in their intrinsic value. Suffering, love, sacrifice, heroism, generosity, cruelty, and avarice are universal values, positive or negative, though they present themselves in men and women whose lives never cross the frontiers of the local; they are universal in the inhabitant of the great cities, in the person from the American jungle, or in the Eskimos’ igloos.

Everything said up to this point can be summed up in these words: if the storyteller must take a subject and isolate it of its appearances to build a story on it, any random subject will not do; it should be a human subject, or something that moves people, and it should be categorically universal. The world is full of this type of subject; the days and hours are full of them, and anywhere the storyteller turns his eyes there will be subjects for good themes.

Now, if on occasion these subjects that surround us present themselves in a form good enough to be told as stories, what is certain is that the storyteller must usually study the subject to know which of its angles will best serve for a story. Sometimes the story is determined by the very mechanics of the subject, but it can also be determined by its essence, its motives, or by its formal appearances. A thief caught in fraganti can make an excellent story if the person who catches him stealing is a police officer brother, or if the cause of the robbery is the hunger of the thief’s mother; and it could be a magnificent story if it’s about the a thief’s first robbery and the storyteller knows how to present the psychological divide which supposedly runs across the barrier between the normal world and the criminal world. In the three cases the subject-theme would be different; in the first, it would be found in the circumstance that the thief’s brother is a police officer; in the second, in the mother’s hunger; in the third, in the psychological divide. How do we come to the reason we’ve insisted on freeing the subject which serves as the theme from everything that is not a legitimate expression of its substance? Because in these three possible stories the theme seems to be the capture of the thief while he’s robbing, and it turns out that there are three distinct themes, and in the three the capture of the young criminal is a path toward the heart of the subject-theme.

Learning how to see a theme, knowing how to choose it, and taking from inside it the aspect useful for developing a story is an incredibly important part of the art of writing stories. The rigid mental and emotional discipline the storyteller exercises over himself begins to act in the act of choosing the theme. The characters in a novel contribute to the writing of the narrative in so far as their personalities, once created, determine in large part the course of the action. But in a story the whole work is the storyteller’s, and this work is determined above all by the quality of the theme. Before sitting down to write the first word, the storyteller should have a precise idea of how he will unfold the work. If this rule is not followed, the result will be weak. In cases of inspiration, in a born storyteller of great power, a story can be written without following this rule; but even the author himself will not be able to guarantee beforehand what will come out of his work when he writes the last word. On the other hand, something else happens if the storyteller works consciously and organizes his construction at the level of the theme he chooses.

In the same way as in the novel the action is determined by the personalities of the protagonists, in the story the theme creates the action. The most drastic difference between the novelist and the storyteller can be found in that the former follows his characters while the latter must guide them. The story’s action is determined by the theme but must be dictatorially regimented by the storyteller; it cannot overflow or fulfill itself in all its possibilities, but only in the terms strictly imperative to the unfolding of the story and lovingly connected to the theme. The characters in a novel can spend ten minutes discussing a painting which does not function in the novel’s plot; in a story a painting shouldn’t even be mentioned if it doesn’t play an important part of the action.

The story is the tiger of the literary fauna; if it carries an extra kilo of fat or flesh, it cannot guarantee killing its prey. Bones, muscles, skin, teeth and claws and nothing more, the tiger is born to attack and dominate the other beasts of the jungle. When age adds fat to its weight and elasticity to its muscles, loosens its teeth or weakens its powerful claws, the majestic tiger finds itself condemned to starvation.

The storyteller must have the soul of a tiger to throw himself at the reader and the tiger’s instinct to select the theme and calculate exactly the distance to his prey and with how much force he should fall on it. Because it happens that in the occult plot of that difficult art which is writing stories, the reader and the theme share the same heart. One shoots at one to wound the other. In its murderous lunge toward the theme, the tiger of the literary fauna is also lunging on the reader.

There is a meaning of the term ‘style’ that identifies it with the mode, the form, the particular manner of doing something. According to this meaning, the use, practice or custom of the execution of this or that work implies a series of rules which should be taken into consideration when creating that work.

Is there a known style, in the sense of mode or form, in the work of writing stories?

Yes. But since every story is a universe in itself, demanding the creative talents of whoever creates it, let us from the start make a precise distinction: the writer of stories is an artist; and for the artist—be he storyteller, novelist, poet, sculptor, painter, musician—the rules are mysterious laws, written for him by a sacred senate nobody knows; and these laws are unavoidable.

Every artistic form is a product of a series of laws, and in every chain of laws there are categories: those that give a work its generic characteristic, and those that control the materials used to create it. Some are combined to form the whole of the artistic work, but those governing the material used to create the work result determined by the artist’s unique mode of expression. In the case of the story writer, the creative medium he uses is language, the mechanics of which he should know completely.

Of the chain of rules let us make an abstraction of those governing the expressive materials. These are the primary baggage of artists, and frequently are dominated without having to study them deeply. Especially in the case of language, it seems doubtless that the born writer brings to the world an instinctive understanding of its mechanics that is often surprising, although there also appears to be no doubt that this gift improves greatly when the instinctive understanding is brought to fruition by way of study.

Let us make an abstraction of the rules referring to the unique mode of each author’s expression. These form the personal style, they give the personal stamp, the divine mark that distinguishes the artist from the multitude of his peers.

For now let’s stay with the laws that confer character to a given genre; in our case, the story. These rules establish the form, the mode of the production of a story.

Form is important in every art. Since ancient times it has been known that concerning the work of creating it, artistic expression can be broken down into two fundamental factors: theme and form. In some arts the form as more value than the theme; this is the case in sculpture, painting, and poetry, above all in recent times.

The close relationship among all the arts, determined by the character forced on the artist in light of the attitude adopted by the social conglomerate toward the problems of his time—of his generation—makes us notice that a change in the style of certain artistic genres often influences the styles of others. Our task here is not to investigate if in reality this influence is produced with decisive intensity or if all the arts change style because of deep changes introduced into the social sensibility by other factors. But we should admit that there are influences. Although we are speaking of the story, we’ll note in passing that contemporary sculpture, painting, and poetry are created with a vision on form more than on theme. This might seem an outlandish observation, given that these arts have escaped the laws of the form in abandoning their old modes of expression. But in reality, what they abandoned was their subjection to the theme to give themselves exclusively to form. Abstract painting and sculpture are only material and form, and the dream of its cultivators is to expel the theme from both genres. New poetry inclines toward leaving only the words and the ways they are used, to the degree that many modern poems that move us would not hold up to an analysis of the theme contained within them.

We’ll return to this topic later. For now let us remember that there is an art in which theme and form have equal importance in any era: this is music. Music cannot be conceived without theme, as much in the Mozart of the 18th Century as in the Bartok of the 20th. On the other hand, musical theme could not exist without the form expressing it. This balance between theme and form is explained through the fact that music should be interpreted in thirds.
But in the novel and in the story, which don’t have interpreters but spectators of an intellectual order, the theme is more important than the form, and naturally much more important than the style with which the author expresses it.

Further still: in the story the theme is more important than in the novel. Because in a strict sense, the story is the narration of an event, only one, and this event—which is the theme—must be important, should have importance on its own, not through the manner of its presentation.

Previously I said that “a story should not be built upon more than one event. The storyteller, like the aviator, doesn’t take flight to go wherever, or even to two places at once; he is forced to know where he’s going with certainty before he puts his hands on the levers that move his machine.”

The idea that the story must be limited to one event, and only to one, is what has led me to define the genre as “the narration of an event of undeniable importance.” In order to avoid having the new storyteller think that ‘an event of undeniable importance’ meant a rare event, I explained at the same time that “the importance of the event is immediately relative, and should be undeniable and convincing to general readers,” and further on said, “importance does not mean novelty, a strange case, a singular occurrence. The propensity to choose uncommon subjects as themes for stories can lead to a deformation similar to what professional athletes suffer in their muscle structure.”

Up till now brevity has been regarded as one of the fundamental laws of the story. But brevity is a natural consequence of the essence of the genre itself, not a requirement of the form. The story is brief because it is limited to narrating one event and only one. The story can be long, even very long, if it sticks to narrating a single event. It doesn't matter if a story is written in forty pages, in seventy, or one-hundred-ten; it always retains its characteristics if it is the narration of a single event, which it will not have if it attempts to narrate more than one, though it do it in only one page.

It’s probable that the long story develop in the future as the most diffuse literary work, since it is possible for the story to reach epic proportions without running the risk of entering the territory of the epic poem, and reaching that level with characters and quotidian settings, outside the borders of history and in pure and clean prose, is almost a miracle that confers onto the story a truly extraordinary artistic category.

“The art of the story consists in situating one’s self toward an event and driving toward it resolutely, without giving importance to incidents that mark the path toward the event” I said before. Note that the novelist does give characteristics of events to the incidents marking the path toward the central event serving as the theme of his narrative; and it’s the description of these incidents—which we can qualify as secondary—and their interconnectedness with the principal event, that make a novel a genre of greater dimensions, of a more varied setting, more numerous characters, and of a much longer duration than a story.

The duration of a story is short and concentrated. This is because it is during the time in which the event occurs—I repeat, only one—and the use of this time in function of the life’s blood of the narrative demands of the storyteller a special capacity for taking the event in its essence, in the purest elements of the action.

Its here, in what we could call the power of expressing the action without distorting it with words, where lies the secret through which the story can be elevated to epic levels. Thomas Mann felt the epic breath in some of Chekhov’s stories—and without a doubt in other authors—but he did not lack proof that he knew the source of that breath. The cause is found in that the epic is a narrative of heroic acts, and he that executes them—the hero—is an artist of action; thus, if through the virtue of describing pure action, a storyteller takes on the epic category to a narrative of a event carried out by men and women who are not heroes in the conventional sense of the word, the storyteller has the gift of creating the feeling of an epic without being obliged to follow the great actors of historic dramas and the scenes they took part in.

Isn’t this a privilege in the art world?

Although we’ve said that in the story the theme matters more than the form, we should remember that there is a form—in the manner, use or practice of doing something—to be able to express pure action, and without holding oneself to it, one cannot write a quality story. The theme’s greater importance in the genre of the story does not signify, therefore, that form can be treated capriciously by the aspiring storyteller. If this were true, how would we be able to distinguish between stories, novels, and histories—related but different genres?
In spite of the familiarity of the genres, a novel cannot be written in the form of a story or history, nor a story in the form of a novel or historical narrative, nor a history as if it were a novel or story.

There is a form for the story. How can we explain, therefore, that recently, in the Spanish language—because we do not know of similar cases in other languages—people try to write stories that are not stories in the strict sense of the term?

Many years ago an eminent Chilean critic wrote that, “along with the traditional story, the story which can be told, with a beginning, middle, and end, the well-known and the classic, there exist others that float, elastically, lazily, without defined outlines or rigorous organization. They are incredibly interesting and, sometimes, extremely subtle; they often exceed their relatives in the genealogy; but how can we deny them, or discuss them? What happens is that they are not stories; they are something else: ramblings, narratives, sketches, scenes, imaginary portraits, prints, slices or fragments of life; they are and can be a thousand other things; but, we insist, they are not stories, they should not be called stories. Words, names, titles, qualifiers and classifiers are meant to clarify and distinguish, not obscure and confuse things. For this reason bread should be called bread. And a story a story.” [HERNÁN DÍAZ ARRIETA, FROM “CRÓNICA LITERARIA” IN EL MERCURIO, SANTIAGO DE CHILE, AUGUST 21ST, 1955—S.D.]

What happens, as we said above, is that a change in style in certain artistic genres is reflected in the style of others. Painting, sculpture and poetry have been moving for some time toward the synthesis of material and form, while abandoning theme; and this attitude among painters, sculptors and poets has influenced the Latin American concept of the story, or the story in our language has been influenced by the same things that have determined the change in style in painting, sculpture and poetry.

For some reason or another, in the new Latin American storytellers one notices a marked inclination toward the idea that the story should accumulate literary images not related to the theme. They aspire to create a kind of story—the so-called “abstract story”—which may come to be a new literary genre, a product of our agitated and confused 20th Century, but which is not and will not be a story.

So now, what is the form of a story?

Apparently, the form is implicit in the type of story one wants to write. There are those who attempt to narrate an action, without other consequences; there are those whose goal is to delineate a character or highlight the salient aspects of a personality; others emphasize problems: social, political, emotional, collective or individual; others attempt to move the reader, shaking their sensibility with the presentation of a tragic or dramatic event; there are humorous ones, tender, or intellectual. And naturally, in every case the storyteller must unfold the theme in the form appropriate to the ends he seeks.

But this form belongs to every story and every author; it changes and adjusts not only to the type of story being written, but to the storytellers mode of writing. Ten different storytellers can write ten dramatic stories, or tender ones, or humorous, with ten distinct themes and with ten forms of expression with nothing in common; and the ten stories can be ten masterpieces.

There is, nevertheless, a substantial form; the profound, which the common reader will not appreciate, in spite of the fact that for this reason alone does the story he is reading keep him charmed and attentive during the course of the action that develops in the narrative or in the involved characters’ destinies. In an intuitive or conscious manner, this form has been cultivated very carefully by all the masters of the story.

This form has two unavoidable laws, likewise for the oral story as for the written one, that do not change because the story is dramatic, tragic, humorous, social, tender, intellectual, superficial or profound, that govern the heart of the genre equally when the characters are fictional as when they are real, when they are animals or plants, water or air, regular people, aristocrats, artists, or poets.

The first law is the law of constant flow.

The action must never be detained; it must run freely in the channel dug by the storyteller, making its way to the end the author seeks without stopping; it should flow without obstacles or meanderings; it should move to the rhythm imposed by the theme—more slowly, more rapidly—but always moving. The action can be objective or subjective, external or internal, physical or psychological; it can even hide the event serving as the theme if the storyteller wants to surprise us with an unexpected ending. But it cannot stop.
It is in action is where the substance of the substance of the story is found. A tender story should be tender because the action is tender in and of itself, not because the words with which the narrative is written aspire to express tenderness; a dramatic story is so because of the dramatic nature of the event that gives it life, not through the literary force of the images displaying it. Thus, the action, for this reason, and because of its unique virtuality, is what forms the story. Therefore, the action should occur without disturbance, without the storyteller interfering in its flow trying to impress the reader with foreign words for the event to convince him that the author has captured well the mood of the incident.

The second law can be inferred form what we’ve just said and can be expressed thus: the storyteller should only use the words necessary to express the action.

The word can display the action, but cannot replace it. A thousand phrases cannot say as much as a single action. In the story, the just and necessary phrase is the one that gives way to the action, in the most pure state, compatible with the work of expressing it through words and in the manner unique to every storyteller of using his own lexicon.

Every word that is not essential to the end proposed by the storyteller rends force from the dynamic of the story and therefore wounds it in its very soul. Given that a storyteller should limit his narrative to the treatment of a single event—and if he’s not doing this he’s not writing a story—he is not authorized to divert himself from it with phrases that distance the reader from the course the action follows.

We can compare the story with a man who leaves home on business. Before leaving he’s thought about where he will go, which streets he will take, what vehicle he will use, to whom he will direct himself, what he will say to them. He takes with him an understood goal. He does not set out to see what he’ll find, rather he knows what he seeks.

This man does not resemble the one who wanders, strolls, entertains himself looking at flowers in a park, listening to two children speaking, observing a beautiful woman in passing; he enters a museum to kill time, moves from painting to painting, admiring the impressionist style of this painter and the abstract art of that other one.

Between these two men, the model for the storyteller should be the first, the one who has put himself into action to reach a goal. Also, the story is an active theme moving toward some end. And in the same way as the actions of the man in question are governed by his needs, so the form of the story is controlled by its active nature.

In the active nature of the story resides its attractive force, which reaches all people of all races in all eras.

Caracas, September, 1958


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