When Writers Make Elements Work Double Duty

In a short story, it’s critical for every element to pull its weight. Every character, setting, and plot point must be employed for maximum effect. There’s no room for imprecise descriptions or dialogue that rambles. But even better is when writers make elements work double duty. If you are skilled enough to make them put in triple or quadruple duty, go for it.

What Is Double Duty?

I learned this concept from the excellent book by Ron Rozelle, Setting and Description. Double duty is when an element does more that it’s obvious assignment. When the main character describes a scene, the point of his description is to give cues for readers to imagine. But I can also convey something about the main character in the way he or she describes it.

For example, the main character is describing the arrival of students at a school in the morning.

The bell rang, and the buses flung open their doors. Kids poured out, laughing, chatting, hurrying for the glass doors to the middle school. The rising pink sun caught angles of the glass, making them sparkle, and threw brilliant shafts across the dusty red bricks. I shouldered my backpack and rushed ahead.

I haven’t said anything about the character describing this scene, but the description helps readers form an image of the person doing the describing. Here’s another way to look at this scene.

The bell screamed, and the buses vomited students. Kids talked frantically, like they had to get all their words about before the glass doors of the middle school locked them in. The rising red sun speared blinding light through the glass, highlighting every crack in the tired bricks. Bending under the weight of my backpack, I trudged at the end of the line.

Other Ways to Work in Double Duty

Dialogue reveals character. The way a character talks can reveal as much as what he says. For example, a characters that starts most sentences with “I” shows something about his personality.

Character reveals plot. A plot point can move the story forward as well as show something about a character’s personality. If the town gossip gets killed because she spread a story that was detrimental to the murderer, then that flaw in her character aids the plot.

Names reveal character. If your main character nicknames people, those nicknames shows something about both the receiver and the giver of them.

If you’ve written a short story, what tips can you offer? Or what are some of your favorite short stories?

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