Simon Wood

SHELF LIFE: Something I Learned From Bob Newhart

I’m a big Bob Newhart fan, but I’m old school fan.  Most people will know him from his sitcoms, but I first discovered him through his nightclub and comedy club recordings. He was known for doing one-sided conversations usually via a phone call with a character unheard by the audience.  His phrasing and his answers to unheard remarks let the audience fill in the blanks of the other half the conversation.  Extremely funny and clever.  Here’s his phone conversation with Walter Raleigh as an example:

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I pinched this technique from him for several short stories of mine.  The key to telling a short story isn’t about abbreviating a novel; it’s about maintaining the depth of a novel but with a story that is short in the telling.   Sounds simple enough, but when your literary real estate is limited, it’s useful to have a few tricks up your sleeve—and one of them is the “Bob Newhart” trick.

My very first publishing credit was for a 97-word story called “An Artist’s Touch” (the limit was 99).  Not much can be done with that but I stretched the story by having the artist in the story talk directly to the reader.  The questions he posed are answered by the reader and not supplied by me as the writer.  I gave the reader the bare bones and the reader put the flesh on the story. It might be a cheat, but it works. 

I’ve done this a few more times, specifically with a story called TRAFFIC SCHOOL and THE CYCLIST.  In both those stories, the reader is a character in the story themselves.  In TRAFFIC SCHOOL, the protagonist is the reader and the antagonist in the case of THE CYCLIST.  In both cases, the reader is prodded to fill in the story as they read it.  Both stories could easy double in length if I’d introduced a character instead of putting the heavy lifting on the shoulders of the reader.  Now who said reading was a passive pastime.  🙂

The other week I blamed Richard Matheson for turning me into a thief.  This week, I have to fess up and say I stole from Bob Newhart without any arm twisting.  🙂



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