Never has a descriptive style been revered and maligned as much as minimalism. Minimalism, which is currently out of fashion due to overexposure, has never been satisfactorily defined. To most writers, minimalism means short and spare. The story is barely told; the readers are supposed to read between the lines. A minimalist story requires strong details and a compelling main character. The characters are usually ordinary working stiffs dealing with life's ordinary slings and arrows. Some critics dubbed these stories "Kmart fiction" because of some minimalists' tendency to use brand names of places and products as a shorthand for characterization. (A character's use of Aqua Velva is supposed to suggest his age, income, and value system, for example.) The best of these writers, however—Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Mary Robison, Amy Hempill—do indeed paint complex pictures with only a few strokes. They dig in and find exactly the right details to reveal character without resorting to brand-name characterizations.
Minimalism suits many beginning writers because it fares well with simple, one- or two-character stories. This is not to say that writing minimally is easy. It only looks easy. In fact, minimalist stories are hard to write and easy to parody. The second version of our story about Abigail the grocery clerk, for instance, is a parody of minimalism. The readers are supposed to "read between the lines" to find meaning in a list of grocery items. Many short-story writers of the seventies and eighties adopted this no-frills descriptive style in an attempt to imitate the great minimalist writers, most notably Raymond Carver. (I wrote some imitations myself, I'm sorry to say.) What we forgot—in our rush to flatter our elders in the sincerest form possible—is that for a story to hold up under this style it must be inherently interesting. When prose is this minimal, you have no place to hide.
If your natural writing style tends toward minimalism, do not despair. Attention to descriptive style can turn a monochromatic story into minimalism at its best. The smallest adjustments in the grocery-item passage, for example, can infuse even a spare story with a sense of expectation:
Version Three: Abigail scanned several items: a box of cornflakes, a can of peas, two cartons of eggs. Bleach. Fish. Apples. With every pass of her hand, the scanner made a sound like a heart hooked to a machine.
Notice how the syntax changes the rhythm of the passage. The long opening sentence followed by three one-word sentences creates a little dance of words. The final sentence begins with a prepositional phrase rather than the conventional subject-verb-object, and includes a simile that suggests something about the character's life. Does Abigail herself feel like a heart hooked to a machine? Already the story seems to promise a character's transition from one state to another. Varied sentence constructions, telling details, evocative images— these small descriptive choices help even the slimmest stories crackle with life.
If your stories are small and your style unadorned, take care to vary your construction and include a relevant image every so often. The life of your story depends on it.
A CASE FOR MAXIMALISM
"Maximalism" is not a literary term, exactly. John Barth used it to describe large, sweeping novels that present entire worlds, such as Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Nowadays the term accurately describes the backlash against minimalism. Suddenly, editors are receiving truckloads of stories that would delight a Victorian: elaborate settings, lush descriptions, event piled upon event, casts of thousands. Loquacious narrators are telling the stories of their lives and including everybody else's stories while they're at it. Many of these stories are wonderfully literary, beguiling, and hugely entertaining. Before you rush to pad your stories with outtakes, however, remember that although less isn't always more, more isn't always more, either. Every word counts, whether the story is long and lush or short and spare. Take that detour if you must, but make sure it winds back to the main road.
You could "maximalize" the story about Abigail the grocery clerk by exploring some past events or people from her life: A rock concert at which she met a roadie who gave her drugs and broke her heart; her father's last day at home before he left with another woman; a teacher who changed her grade after she pretended to cry. These detours—lengthy and complicated as they may be—make sense because they relate to Abigail's present-day story, which involves a man who claims to be auditioning women for a movie. He's probably lying, but Abigail can't afford not to believe him. The remembered events (rock concert; Dad's last day; grade change) are important because they remind her of her acting ability (crying for the teacher), and of men who lie (Dad and the roadie).
One way to manage a "maximal" story is to keep a strong stylistic focus. The prose style focuses the story. In her novel The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx focuses an episodic story about a newsman in Newfoundland by using deliberately eccentric prose. Peppered with the foreign-sounding vocabulary of Newfoundland, the prose style reminds us at all times that the main character is a stranger in a strange land. Also, Proulx often begins sentences with the verb rather than the subject, giving her prose the clipped, imperative feel of newspaper headlines, a stylistic quirk that keeps the newsman central to our experience.
Perhaps we could find a similar stylistic focus in our story about Abigail the grocery clerk. Perhaps Abigail is remembering incidents from her life—the roadie, her father, and the teacher—as if they had occurred in a movie she once saw. Why not incorporate movie-style language into the prose? The first digression could begin like this:
The last time she had taken a man at his word was in May, on the day of the annular eclipse of the sun. She burst out the sliding doors at the end of her shift to find the day eerily still, the chatty spring birds gone silent. A shadow passed over the parking lot with the sepia tone of an old movie. Cut to evening. A rock concert in progress. Girl, late teens, appears at the door, waving the backstage passes she won by being the fifteenth caller. She is allowed in, only to find a thicket of roadies shielding the fleeing band.
She: Your hair's too long.
He: Who the hell are you?
She: Your hair's too long. I can't see your eyes.
He offers her a shot of tequila, and an unfiltered cigar-
ette, and some pretty pink pills she can never remember the name of.
She slid a pound of ground turkey over the scanner and winced at the sound. Cut to present, she thought grimly.
The other digression could have a similar movie-reel format. No matter how many times Abigail digresses from the present, the readers will not be left wondering what happened to the girl in the grocery store, because every stylistic flourish that suggests a movie will also suggest the present-action story about the movie maker. All the extra characters and story lines will be unified by style.
If Abigail's story is about something that doesn't lend itself to stylistic innovation, you might want to focus the narrative by using a central image. A house. A color. A pet. A dress. Let's say the story is about Abigail's being burdened by a family pattern of heroism. She works double shifts to support her mother and grandmother, lovely yet sickly women who are beyond reproach. People seem to think it should be a privilege for Abigail to waste her youth caring for them; all the women in the family, from Eve on down, have made selflessness their raison d'etre. Abigail's great-great aunt once saved a hypothermic baby by ripping off the beaded skirt of her wedding dress and wrapping the child in it, scandalizing onlookers and saving the child. Abigail tells this story to one of her customers, then remembers another story, one about her grandmother:
Of course, there was a war on. She rationed salt. She rationed sugar. She rationed butter. She rationed her deepest wants, waiting for her man—Abigail's grandfather—to come home. She had a dress in her closet, a soft cotton sheath with real brass buttons. She had Uncle Geoffrey take her picture and send it to Grampa in the Philippines. A beautiful blonde woman in a sky-blue dress.
The story goes on to tell about the progress of the war and the toll on the women back home. Shortages become crises, and the grandmother ends up cutting the brass buttons from the dress as a donation to the war effort. The dress is simply not the same dress now, so she remakes it into a bunting for the baby who will turn out to be Abigail's mother.
Then Abigail remembers a third dress story, this one involving her mother, who once hand-sewed an Easter dress and left it on the doorstep of an impoverished playmate of Abigail's. By this time Abigail is tired and cranky from what is becoming a thunderous noise from the grocery scanner. She tears off her smock—a tacky polyester thing with her name stitched in orange letters. She leaves work, goes straight to a store, and wastes a week's pay on a new dress, something tight and trashy, a dress that couldn't possibly become a prop in yet another story about selflessness. Abigail's story incorporates several generations of stories, and yet it feels unified because of the common detail of the dress.
Another way to focus an expansive narrative is to use a strong setting. George Eliot used a place—the fictitious Middlemarch—to weave many separate story lines in her novel of the same name. Alice Munro often uses place to unify her delightfully meandering stories. Strong first-person narrators can focus a story, too. Narrators with quirky observations and charming voices can wander far off the path with barely a whimper from the readers, who feel tethered to the story by way of the narrator's voice.
Unifying a narrative with any number of these stylistic strategies offers you a chance to expand your story's horizons while retaining the illusion that it is being told with exactly the right number of words.