BRIDGET WHELAN writer

Muse, News and Views

What is a short story?

short story is a hot air balloonSomeone asked me recently to define a short story. I could understand her difficulty because it’s much easier to say what’s it’s not.

It’s not an idea that could have been developed into a novel had the writer the energy or inclination to go on a 80,000 word journey.

It seems to me that you have to write for the length of the idea. Some need the sharpness of flash fiction; some require the fine detail that’s achievable in 5000 words while other ideas want the expanse of a full length novel to grow and reach maturity. The great Irish writer Seán Ó Faoláin said a short story is to a novel as a hot air balloon is to a passenger jet. I guess the point he was making is that while they may both rise above the clouds they do it in very different ways.

William Boyd writing in The Guardian in 2004 disliked the analogy that a novel is an orchestra and the short story is a string quartet because it focused on size which he didn’t feel was relevant.
“The music produced by two violins, a viola and a cello cannot ever sound anything like the music produced by dozens of instruments, but a paragraph or a page from a short story is indistinguishable from a paragraph or a page from a novel. The short story draws on exactly the same resources as does the novel – language, plot, character and style. None of the literary tools that novelists require to write their novels is denied the short-story writer. A more pertinent comparison – to try to pin down the essence of the two forms – is poetry: to compare the epic with the lyric. Let us say that the short story is prose fiction’s lyric poem, contrasted with the novel as its epic.”

A short story is not easier than a novel.
Boy! Is it not.

I just came across the WikiHow entry on writing short stories. It says “While writing a novel can be a Herculean task, just about anybody can craft and, most importantly, finish, a short story.” No, they can’t unless they mean that almost anybody can write 1000 words of grammatically correct sentences that somehow link up together, but that’s no more a short story than a roll of material pinned into a tube  is a dress.

There’s nowhere to hide in a short story. A clunky phrase stands out as if the publisher had highlighted it in neon yellow. Flabby sentences and padding are much more obvious when you have so few words  at your disposal and weaknesses like that are more dangerous. A reader is more tolerant with a novelist, reasoning that they have already invested time in reading the first six chapters and they are willing to overlook a duff seventh if the pace picks up again. A boring short story very quickly becomes an unread short story

But what is a short story?

I thought I would go to the experts for the answer.

Edgar Allen Poe defined it as a story you could read in one sitting which is a pretty good guide to length, but what about the content? Angus Wilson felt that short stories and plays were similar. “You take a point in time and develop it from there; there is no room for development backwards.”

The American writer Alice Munro says a short story is ‘a world seen in a quick glancing light and the British short story writer Sir V.S. Pritchett said much the thing when he defined it as “something glimpsed from the corner of an eye, in passing.

Of course I didn’t say all this when the girl asked for advice, I didn’t think of it but I did say she would recognise a good one when she saw it.

Here’s a few stories that I wish I had suggested she might like to read. I’ve listed them here in no particular order and I know there are others that I will kick myself for leaving out. Although I can’t put my finger on the common defining quality that binds them together, I do know that they are all short stories and couldn’t be anything else and that they are all worth reading and re-reading.

The Dead by James Joyce
Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
Raspberry Jam by Angus Wilson (read it when I was 12 and have never forgotten it)
Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
Little Things by Raymond Carver

Can you help out with a definition of a short story?
Have you got a favourite?

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photo credit: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton via photopin cc

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29 comments on “What is a short story?

  1. artycappuccino
    August 17, 2013

    The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

  2. bridget whelan
    August 17, 2013

    Yes! I think I read it at the same time as Raspberry Jam – I seem to remember a battered copy of Penguin’s Greatest Short Stories Ever (or something) at home when I was a teenager. It was a treasure house….

  3. Lane Ashfeldt
    August 18, 2013

    Hi Brigid, here’s my answer… It’s a story, and it’s short. Short did not used to mean short, the short story has been shrinking for some time – see my post on “How Long is a Short Story” on Lane 7 for more detail but here’s the meat of it:
    “Chekhov is often referred to as a master of the short story, but his stories can seem surprisingly unbrief to a modern reader, clocking in at often upwards of 10,000 words a tale.”
    http://ashfeldt.com/2009/06/19/how-long-is-a-short-story/

    Then there’s the influence of twitter on brevity generally…. 😉 Where will it end?

    • bridget whelan
      August 18, 2013

      Thanks Lane. William Boyd may have been less concerned with size and focused more on the tools at a short story writer’s disposal, but size does define most writing and is an integral part of the structure. Have stories shrunk over the years? Chekhov was writing at the end of the 19th century – before film and television and radio, before stories were piped into our homes 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week so I guess the last thing people wanted back then was flash fiction.

      • Lane Ashfeldt
        August 18, 2013

        It’s amusing in the context of his own remarks on brevity, Bridget. I have a feeling more people talk abt Chekhov and even use the word Chekhovian (sp?) than have actually read his stories. Today his stories might fall in the gap between a [longer] short story and the rarely sighted novella.

  4. bridget whelan
    August 18, 2013

    His idea of brevity was different from ours I guess…and his ideas about writing prose (not tying up all the loose ends etc) have probably been more influential than his practice (not including his plays of course in that…)

  5. John
    August 21, 2013

    This was helpful. Thanks for the post. I have to admit I prefer short stories that take me someplace (I also prefer to read novels, generally). Snapshots don’t excite me much. But I recognize that Munro and Pritchett are in the mainstream here, not me, at least for what I’ve seen of literary short stories.

    • bridget whelan
      August 21, 2013

      Thanks John. Seems to me that just as some writers don’t suit the short story format some readers can’t get on with either…after all one size doesn’t fit all

      • John
        August 22, 2013

        Fair enough. But couldn’t we push that point a bit further, and say there’s more than one kind of good short story? Say, the snapshot sort and the journey sort? I’m not suggesting everybody should like the same kind. For instance, I really like a short story (as I said) that takes me somewhere. Another person might like the snapshot. Doesn’t mean only one of those is a real short story.

  6. cathum
    August 21, 2013

    I think the best short stories always need re-reading.

    I’m never able to pin myself down to one favourite. You’ve named three of mine, and one that I’ve never heard of, but if it’s stayed with you since you were 12, must be good – my equivalent to that is Katherine Mansfield’s, The Daughter’s of the Late Colonel.

    • bridget whelan
      August 21, 2013

      I think the best anything deserves re-reading…I didn’t want to leave Katherine Mansfield out but I just couldn’t remember the titles of any her stories. Now you’ve given me a nudge isn’t there one about a garden party (that could be the title) that starts mid sentence. Something like: And then they decided…wonderful feeling that they were all busy doing something before the story started and would be getting on with their lives after the end.

      • cathum
        August 31, 2013

        Yes, I love ‘The Garden Party’, too. I’ve just looked up the beginning again: ‘And after all the weather was ideal.’ It is an amazing opening line.
        Thanks for ‘Raspberry Jam.’ I see why it’s haunted you.

  7. Pingback: The Bath Short Story Award

  8. bridget whelan
    September 3, 2013

    Thanks Cathum for looking the Kathrine Mansfield story up. Glad you like Raspberry Jam. There’s a line in it about an old woman walking with the confidence of someone who had once been beautiful. Delicious.

  9. EastEndLass
    October 27, 2013

    My favourite hort story is actuallly Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag” which is in her book Pretty Monsters

    http://kellylink.net/magic-for-beginners/magic-for-beginners-sample-stories/the-faery-handbag

  10. bridget whelan
    October 28, 2013

    Thanks for this – I’ve never come across this writer but am definitely going to look her up.

  11. Pingback: A New Website celebrating the short story — SAFARI FRIDAY SEARCHING THE WEB FOR WRITERS AND READERS | BRIDGET WHELAN writer

  12. marjma2014
    June 29, 2014

    Reblogged this on kyrosmagica and commented:
    I struggle with writing short stories. When I came across this from Bridget Whelan just had to reblog.

  13. marjma2014
    June 29, 2014

    Thanks for this. I find short story writing exceptionally hard. I prefer writing longer pieces of work, so read this with interest and have reblogged.

  14. Julia Molloy
    June 30, 2014

    Thanks for this post – I’ve really grown to enjoy short stories since I’ve been studying Creative Writing at university, and Hills Like White Elephants is definitely one of my favourites. I agree that not everyone can write short stories and that they are incredibly difficult to judge given the shorter word count, but equally I find them much more enjoyable to write than longer works.

    • bridget whelan
      July 8, 2014

      It’s horses for courses, isn’t it? A good novelist isn’t necessarily a good short story writer and vice3 versa

  15. helena mallett
    July 8, 2014

    What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver and two recently discovered short story authors are Lydia Davis and Deborah Eisenberg.

    • bridget whelan
      July 8, 2014

      Love the Raymond Carver story but haven’t come across the other two authors — thank you for the recommendation

      • helena mallett
        July 8, 2014

        You’re welcome. Lydia Davis won the Man Booker Prize – enjoy!

  16. bridget whelan
    July 8, 2014

    Doh! Should have recognised her name – should read her!

  17. Elizabeth Hein
    November 5, 2014

    I recently reread “the yellow wallpaper” and it still gives me chills. Anything by Katherine Mansfield is excellent.

  18. vanessagee
    January 16, 2017

    I am just re-reading Ali Smith’s ‘The First Person and other stories’ (Penguin, 2008) – and in the title story, there is included a list of definitions offered by many well knowns. Here they are – (sorry, its long, but all lovely, all relevant): Kafka: the short story is a cage looking for a bird. Tzvetan Todorov – a short story is so short it doesn’t allow us the time to forget that it is only literature and not actually life. Nadine Gordimer: short stories are absolutely about the present moment, like the brief flash of a number of fireflies here and there in the dark. Elizabeth Bowen: The short story has the advantage over the novel of a special kind of concentration – it creates narrative each time absolutely on its own terms. Eudora Welty: short stories often problematise their best interests – that’s what makes them interesting. Henry James: short stories can give a particularised perspective on both complexity and continuity. Borges: short stories can be the perfect form for novelists too lazy to write anything longer than fifteen pages. Ernest Hemingway says short stories are made by their own change and movement, and even when a story seems static and you can’t make out any movement at all, it is probably moving and changing regardless. William Carlos Williams – the short story is the only real form for describing the brokenness and simultaneous wholeness of people’s lives. Walter Benjamin: short stories are stronger than real lived moment because they can go on releasing the real lived moment after the real lived moment is dead. Cynthia Ozick says the difference between the short story and the novel is a book whose journey, if its a good working novel, actually alters the reader, whereas a short story is more like a talismanic gift to the protagonist of a fairy tale – something complete, powerful, which can be held in the hands or tucked into the pocket and taken through the forest on a dark journey. Grace Paley: chooses to write only short stories because life is too short, and stories are by nature about life, and life is always found in dialogue and argument. Alice Munro: every short story is at least two stories. There you are – some strike me as rather forced, coming from writers on the spot trying too hard to be original. But I think the aggregate proves that if you try to define the short story in quantitative terms you will fail substantially. (Aside – I’m just writing one. So fat, I am at 8, 200 words. It will be pushing 10k when it’s finished. Edited back, to c 9? who knows – I used to think I wrote between 250 and 2500, mostly. We change. So do stories. The best, for me – The Ledge by Lawrence Sargeant Hall. Written in 1960, he is not known for much else. It is a humdinger. It can be found online, and somewhere I can be found online reading it for something called ‘Read me Something You Love’.

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