Ayn Rand on Short Story Construction

Ayn Rand has this tendency to lecture about things in her writing. This drives some people crazy but for me, I love that she has fossilized some very clear thinking about what is and what is not.

For instance… Where is the line between a novel and a short story? Before I read this, I would have said something meandering, vague, and fuzzy:

The first requirement of a short story is that it must be built around one single incident. It can be an incident which is complete in itself, or it can be an incident which summarizes and climaxes a long development of events, but it must be a single incident, like a sharp focus. Otherwise it is not the construction of a short story, but of a novel, mo matter what the length. Length is not the standard by which one differentiates a short story from a novel; the method of construction is. One cannot take a broad view of a subject, such as one takes for a novel, and say: “I will make it a short story by telling it briefly.” One must take a subject which can be brought into one focus, one concrete incident, and build the narrative around it.

(From Letter to Gerald Loeb, vice president of E.F. Hutton and Co. dated Jan 15, 1943)

…but Rand has such stark views on things that you know exactly where she would drop a line and, if you’re not too busy taking the lecture personally, you can benefit from her clarity.

She goes on to discuss, in the context the particular story she has just read by Mr. Loeb, which incident would have been the crucial one to present and why. I’ll cherry pick sentences so that we get a more concise reading:

…you must show one scene between your characters in detail, with action and dialogue. that scene must be a crucial one, not just an incidental one chosen at random, but a scene that climaxes the rest and resolves the theme of the story..
What is the theme of your story?…
The scene in which he finds it out, the scene where the woman shows her real character and the man receives a dreadful, tragic disappointment… that scene must be written and presented in detail. Then you’ll have a proper short story form.
…the reader has been reading a long general narrative, getting acquainted with the characters and waiting for the climax when he would see them in action. That unwritten scene is the local climax. If the reader does not see it–nor any other specific scene–he feels cheated. And you cannot choose another scene for a focus, because in a short story it is the crucial scene that must be featured.

So… short stories should focus on the one crucial scene, we should see the characters in action and dialogue, and there should be a climax so the reader isn’t left feeling blue.

Got it! :) Now to get to the writing.

PS - You can buy Rand’s book of letters on Amazon.com.  I have really enjoyed reading a few letters each morning.  It is a very relaxing yet invigorating way to start my days.

Ayn Rand - from Letter to DeWitt Emery dated Sep 10, 1941

As to my working for P & E–I’d be delighted, if I can really go ahead with the cause. No, I’m not going to get “damned mad” about being offered a salary. I told you that I had to have a salary if I were to give the work my full time, and I won’t be any good unless I give it my full time. The job I have now takes more than eight hours a day–sometimes it’s twelve and more–so I couldn’t do any real work until I quit this. If I were a capitalist, I’d much rather work for the cause as a volunteer–but, unfortunately, I am only a proletarian defender of Capitalism, than which there is no worse thing to be. If I were a defender of Communism, I’d be a Hollywood millionaire-writer by now, with a swimming pool and a private orchestra to play the Internationale. As it is, I have to work for my living. So I’m quite definitely for sale–all of me above the next–to anyone on our side who really intends to work for our side.
— Ayn Rand - from Letter to DeWitt Emery dated Sep 10, 1941

In This Post: The Terminator Meets Ayn Rand

I’ll Be Back…

I was way too young for it when I watched Terminator for the first time. But man, I do remember it. Arnold Schwartzeneggar was a perfect kind of unstoppable robot of the future with a very strange and severe voice. Over the years of watching his many films, his voice and personality have become familiar… perhaps because of his distinctive manner of speaking. Once you get used to his range of expression, he is hilarious, and subtle, and brilliant.

I had a similar experience with the speaking voice of Ayn Rand, which has a similar distinctive yet familiar quality. There was a period of a year in my early 30s where, having just finished reading Atlas Shrugged, I was listening to the recorded audio of a series of lectures Rand had done for the Ford Hall Forum.

If you have a hard time listening to the sound of her speak, you have my sympathy. The first time I heard her voice I was struck by how severe it was. She has a very distinctly Russian accent and even when she is expressing excitement, cutting disdain, or humor/wit, she is still VERY reserved and quit severe. But just like the Governator, I got used to her voice and the range of her expression, I could get more of a sense of her personality.

Ayn Rand: Excitable Fan-Girl

I am sharing this letter because I think it’s cute. Rand is depicted as a monster usually. I feel about her as I would a dear friend who really felt what she felt when she felt it. The letter below has a LOT of italics and I think there’s a girlish charm to it. Still it manages to come across as a bit… Russian… and fully, Ayn Rand.

Without further ado, I present to you her letter to Ev Suffens.

May 26, 1936 Dear Mr. Suffens,

Since I am an old, faithful admirer of your program, you know how I feel about it. But you are conducting a poll among your listeners and I want to register my vote formally. On the first question you asked over the air: do you want the Midnight Jamboree continued through the summer, I answer: YES!!! Most emphatically yes. Your program has become a household institution with us, like a visit with a friend each evening. If you were to discontinue it, it would leave a void no other program could fill. I don’t exaggerate when I say that I would simply be heartbroken, because the Midnight Jamboreee is the best, the most charming, the most amusing program on the air and the only one to which we listen regularly.

On your second question: do we want the program conducted as it is now for made more formal, I answer: by all means keep it as it is now. Its whole charm is the informality and your peculiar, inimitable sense of humor. The Midnight Jamboree is really Ev Suffens. You do play excellent music, but any other station can play the same records. If you were to turn into a formal, stuffy announcer, I would be bored to death. And I don’t believe that anyone would listen to three solid hours of formality. Artificial, pretentious, fawning pomposity is precisely what is wrong with most radio announcers and what gives the radio it’s slightly silly, inane aspect. Since there is no one on the air quite like you—why even consider giving up your charm and originality to become like hundreds of others?

We love “Oscar,” “Oswald,” “Rasputin,” and your whole family. They have become real characters to us, real friends whom we would miss terribly. My suggestion would be to have more of them, not less. As to the music, my vote is: more classics, particularly light concert classics such as you have been playing lately. Personally, I would say: all classics, but I don’t mind suffering through a jazz number once in a while if it’s necessary and if your audience demands it.

To sum up I say: WE WANT THE MIDNIGHT JAMBOREEE CONTINUED FOREVER AND JUST AS IT IS NOW. And I add a vote of thanks and a salute to the best program on the air and the man who created it.

You Must Leave Your Biases At The Door to Enter.

If you’ve read this much, I have a tiny bit more to say. If you’re already fascinated with Rand then I have no specific call to action for you. But if you’re on the fence about it, consider this:

A very large subset of people who are curious about Rand became aware of her because they were turned off by a grotesque and Picasso-esque caricature of her ideas. (I’d wager that if you took a measure of the total number of words that have been written, there is a greater volume of words written as caricatures than by Ayn Rand herself.) So though these people are curious, they are also pre-positioned to take a position of detractor and if they follow that road to the land of confirmation-bias, they will seek only proof that Rand is a villain.

This may or may not resemble your experience.

Well… for those who are willing to leave their preconceptions at the door, Rand has a lot of paradigm-shifting insights that she has shared with the world. There is lots to explore. Maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t. If you adopt even one nugget of truth that you see as wisdom, you will be that much stronger than you were yesterday.

But I only suggest checking it out if you are open to challenging your own ideas. If you just want confirmation that what you already believe is valid and correct and that everyone else is wrong, you need merely go onto Facebook and repost outrage-porn stories. Anyone can do this. It’s the easiest thing in the world.

I want to go beyond this. I am considering the question: what can I do that is so valuable to me (and mankind at-large) it will be remembered in 200 years? As I begin this journey, I am faced with this truth: I must be willing to face down and change who and what I am today to get there tomorrow.