4 Short Story Writing Lessons from Latin American Authors
You’ll find that The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories is packed with excellent examples to imitate in your own writing. The hard part is breaking down the elements of those stories to apply them in your own work.
To streamline that process you can use the essential qualities of the short story, as espoused in The New Short Story Theories by Charles E. May, to examine stories. Below, you’ll learn how four Latin American short stories demonstrate May’s essential qualities.
1. Embodiment of a timeless theme, not dependent on social context (“Hahn’s Pentagon” by Osman Lins)
In The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories Roberto González Echevarría, declares the theme of “Hahn’s Pentagon” to readers, “The central figure, Hahn, is a circus elephant who seems to embody the innocence of childhood and the melancholy that remains when it vanishes.”
Other forms, besides short stories, run with timeless themes such as the loss of innocence. The Catcher in the Rye, for example, weaves the loss of innocence through an entire novel. So, what makes themes stand out in short stories? As Charles E. May explains on the last page of his introduction to the The New Short Story Theories, short stories “Are more aligned with the original religious nature of narrative. Short stories are therefore more apt to embody a timeless theme and are thus less dependent on a social context than novels.” “Hahn’s Pentagon” makes this embodiment visually apparent as the story uses childish ideograms a great deal in the beginning (you’ll count 35 on the first page as the characters are introduced), but the ideograms and their playful style fade away as the characters are established (you’ll count zero on the closing page) and, like Hahn the traveling elephant, move along.
The story’s choice of music hints at the loss of innocence too. By mentioning “Blue Danube,” Lins uses a popular song to reinforce the theme. Blue is often the color of melancholy, as we say, “I’m feeling blue.” The song is a waltz, often a somber form. The Danube is a river, and a river is always moving, passing, and never the same twice. As you listen to the song, appreciate the sense of something momentous passing by like a hurried movement through time, rather than a song about a singular experience.
The characters of “Hahn’s Pentagon” run through time in a disjointed fashion, backwards and forwards, and readers struggle to track all of their storylines, but recurring elements fit the theme as well. Discussion of marriage, aging, sexual development, and the creation and destruction of a kite all serve as symbols of the theme.
Of course, there is Hahn itself. While the elephant is in some ways just a recurring part of the scenery, the circus elephant is also an excellent symbol for a story about the loss of innocence. The circus, the fair, and the amusement park are all places that seem joyful and innocent up front. However, as we become adults, we see that there may be questions of cleanliness, pollution, and especially the treatment of animals. Think of all the former Sea World customers who watched the “Blackfish” documentary film and lost their appetite for watching animals held in captivity.
Finally, examine what Echevarría called the “temporal fragmentation” of Hahn’s Pentagon. The editor points out that this structure makes the story into an allegory about how we store and recall memories that are held apart and reviewed out of order, much like the way we look back on the innocence of childhood. And, as critics have pointed out, this collection of different viewpoints is reminiscent of the parable of the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and claiming to find something different: the leg as a tree, the tail as a horse, etc. This connection to parables brings us full circle to the relationship between short story and the religious nature of early narratives. For this reason and the many above, “Hahn’s Pentagon” by Osman Lins is an excellent story to demonstrate Charles E. May’s criterion of embodiment of theme in short stories.
2. Focus on desires, fears, dreams, and anxieties: “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges
This story may remind you of your own dreams. Next time you wake, try to recall your dreams. You may be surprised that the illogical narrative didn’t stir you from your sleep. This dreamlike unbelievable believability will gnaw at readers of “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Jorge Luis Borges.
In this story, the narrator is a questionable character who we first encounter already in medias res. He comes to us through a deposition. Our text is his confession that has been transcribed, lost, rediscovered, examined, translated, and left with missing pages. This deposition is a fair metaphor for the haphazard route our dreams follow from subconscious to sleeping perception to broken memories of the dream and perhaps to notes jotted in a journal in the morning. We learn that the interpreter is rather partial, much like dreamers, as he declares in the footnotes that the claims of the narrator are “A malicious and outlandish statement.” Overall, readers must accept that their image of the story behind the deposition looks as hazy as the mixed testimonies of real-life drama.
The dreamlike nature of this short story is not uncommon, as Charles E. May explained in the Introduction to the The New Short Story Theories, short stories are related to myths and, “therefore, are more apt to focus on basic desires, dreams, anxieties, and fears than novels.” Readers of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth will recall that the reverse has been said about dreams, they serve as something of a personal mythology. May digs into this more in the early part of his Introduction, describing “stories functioning much the way Freud argued that dreams did; that is, either as wish fulfillment or an expression of the repetition compulsion.” And, “Myth exists to give us this reassurance of the persistence of some fundamental forms of human action.” Take that all to mean that dreams and short stories come from our desire to grasp our human nature and, hopefully, grow from that understanding.
For our narrator, the theme he repeats is the way decisions ripple through the future. On a small level, he feels “degraded” by his role as a spy but must finish his mission now that a point of no return rests behind him. Completing the mission eventually requires him to commit a murder. The narrator’s grandfather was on a mission of his own to complete a labyrinth, itself a puzzle that you enter only with the goal of escaping on the other side. The story is the narrator’s confession from the past resurfaced by scholars in the future. And the story contains only a few lines of italicized text that offer specific guidance on consequences, “Whosoever would undertake some atrocious enterprise should act as if it were already accomplished, should impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.” We see that, like the nice guy who turns Machiavellian to meet a noble end, decisions that jeopardize our character will ultimately do us harm. And, perhaps, these decisions are really the forking paths the title alludes to.
The story fits many genres, detective story, psychological thriller, mystery, etc. Like popular titles in these genres, it plays on the fear and anxiety within the narrator and these emotions keep the reader hooked. The introduction to the story alludes to its significance in the events of a great war and as we read further, we find more layers of mystery to explore. Anxiously, we race to the end to figure out the superficial question of the story: what the heck is gonna happen to this guy? Foreboding phrases like “with the eyes of a man already dead, I contemplated the fluctuations of the day which would probably be my last,” keep readers worried for the narrator.
Like “Hahn’s Pentagon,” Borges’s story also seems to lose track of time. The narrator is nostalgic for his past. The antagonist, Dr. Albert, knew the narrator’s grandfather in the past. The “fact” that the story has been dug up for its historical value shows that it is timeless, even though it is not current. And the events of the narrator’s day seem like they would take much longer than any normal person would go without rest, similar to the events of a television show, a movie, or even a dream where the star never seems to need food or bodily functions.
For these points that demonstrate the ambiguous, foreboding nature of Borges’s story, “The Garden of Forking Paths” exemplifies May’s criterion that short stories focus on desires, fears, dreams, and anxieties.
3. Use of archetypal characters: “The Clearing” by Luisa Mercedes Levinson
Only four characters appear in this very short story. First, don Alcibiades, probably named after the treacherous ancient statesman, who represents the archetypal bad guy. He lies, he deceives, he kills, and he has a power that makes him unsympathetic. In a cartoon, he would be the wicked villain twisting his mustache as the train is about to run over the damsel in distress tied to the tracks. Second, a damsel in distress, so simple that she goes without a name. She is not quite tied to the tracks, instead she is eventually tied to her hammock where she will die and in a broader sense, she is trapped in the clearing with don Alcibiades. Her white knight is Ciro, a working-class man, loved and then lost when murdered at the hands of don Alcibiades. And finally, a character readers tend to forget until he reappears in the last line of the story, the self-described, “I, the poor message-runner,” who wanders into the clearing to find the set of dead bodies and tell their story. He is an extremely distant observer, (he disappears for the course of the entire story) unlike the more complex observers of novels such as The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway.
While these characters may seem one-dimensional, and it is often more exciting to connect with nuanced characters, they serve a special purpose in short stories. As Charles E. May explains, because short stories are often wrestling with timeless ideas and independent of social context, “short stories are more likely to identify characters in archetypal terms,” and this is to their advantage. As we read and review the story, we see deeper layers of meaning and paint those onto the actions of the characters. For example, our seemingly brainless damsel in distress ultimately delivers justice and dies a tragic hero.
For the clear roles, at least on the surface, that each character plays, “The Clearing” by Luisa Mercedes Levinson is an example of May’s criterion that short stories make use of archetypal characters.
4. Dependence on craftsmanship: “The Photograph” by Enrique Amorim
In just three pages, Amorim packs a memorable tale that guides the reader to an indirect conclusion about the main character and a more direct lesson about the nature of life. To be effective in limited space, a short story must be, “more dependent on craftsmanship and exhibit more authorial control than novels,” as Charles E. May explained.
“The Photograph” touches lightly on the struggle of a young woman to assure her mother that she is prospering in her new location and a subsequent conflict with young teacher. It’s never said what the woman does for a living, but we learn of her time with sailors and relationships that wouldn’t be appropriate for taking a photograph together. We are never told that the antagonist, a schoolteacher, chose to be unkind, but we are reminded of the contrary nature of schoolchildren as their tossing of banana peels is mentioned twice in the last page. These subtle elements make this piece stand out for its keeping with May’s essential criteria of craftsmanship.
Now it’s time to close the web browser, app, whatever you use to read this article and write your own story. Consider your story concept first. How can it embody a timeless theme, like “Hahn’s Pentagon”? What will you do to focus the stories on fears, dreams, desires, and anxieties like “The Garden of Forking Paths”? Then, move on to your characters. Who will you create to serve as your archetypal characters? Finally, rewrite your story with care and authorial control of a short story craftsman.