In a recent Monday Musings I mentioned Nettie Palmer who was part of one of Australia’s famous literary couples. Her husband, Vance Palmer, wrote, in the late 1930s to early 1940s, a regular column for the ABC Weekly published by the then Australian Broadcasting Commission. Nettie Palmer also contributed to this paper, albeit less regularly. One of these contributions is a discussion, in 1943, of Australian and Russian short stories. In it she made a simple but clear statement on what she believes is essential to a good story:
What is a story without the power to see what matters to people, to detect the character’s most revealing moment? A sense of life is something more than mere narrative, or a knack for inventing a scene.
This appeals to me because of her focus on meaning and character rather than on plot … and I like the way she hones in on “the character’s most revealing moment”. When I think about it, the best short stories do tend to centre on just that, a moment (an action, a decision, an event) in which the character’s self is revealed to us. I think of Guy de Maupassant‘s “The necklace”, Kate Chopin‘s “Désireé’s baby” and Henry Lawson’s “The drover’s wife”. In these stories, the main characters are confronted by a challenge to their sense of being … and how each responds tells us much about who they are, and we, in contemplating their reactions, learn a bit more, perhaps, about who we are.
Does this definition of a good story hold for longer fiction too?