WHAT IS A SHORT STORY? Writing Article Number 2 from the Archive
Someone 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 Canadian writer and Nobel prize winner, 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?
This article first appeared on August 17 2013