Mini novels - nope, not even close
Love 'em, hate 'me, or something in between, short stories are a cornerstone of our written words. But what is a short story, especially in the day of Tweet flash fiction and Instagram serials?
Short stories are usually going to fall between 1,000 and 10,000 words, but that doesn't really pin things down for us beyond marking the yards on the football field. Short stories aren't novels - nor should they be. While novels have the classic three act structure, short stories focus on one main event (usually - as with everything there are exceptions). They focus on a character, leaving the subplots and the full chorus to larger works. For shorts, its about hitting character, plot, setting and tension in a teeny tiny space. Think Fabergé egg instead of the Winter Palace.
What's the attraction?
Why would an author write a short story instead of a novel? I know why I do (and I'll share that in a minute) but I asked some author pals for their thoughts and here is what they shared.
I like to write individual short stories because they take less work to maintain continuity and allow me to explore creative ideas and new characters with less time commitment. - Cass Kim, author of dystopian series, Wilders.
My favorite part of short stories is the challenge of building solid characters, atmosphere, and plot, in as efficient a manner as possible. Hey, and they're just plain fun to both read and write. - Jacob Klop, author of Crooked Souls
I like the format of a short story when I want to convey a single punch of feeling. Everything builds to and serves that one moment. In a novella or novel, you must be building toward several things at once, but with a short story, every word serves the single pay-off. It's simpler to write, so I can focus just on the joy of the words. - Mallory Kelly, author of Clown Conspiracy
Short stories are where pulp heroes are born. Well told, they fill the hidden moments with a special kind of joy that often out lives the moment of their reading. They will forever hold a special place in my heart. - Martin Shannon, author of The Tales of Weird Florida
Dim Sum for your eyes
Why do I like shorts? Sometimes you just want dim sum, or tapas, or some other small bite. Something satisfying and tasty and evocative but consumable in one setting.
Old and New - a list
There are shorts out there for every style and taste. Familiar classics by Edgar Allan Poe (my favorite is the Tell Tale Heart from 1843), works by O. Henry, Joyce Carol Oates, Washington Irving, and Kate Chopin. More modern works that might catch your eye include The Summer by John Cheever, Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell and Midnight Zone by Lauren Groff. There are many, many more wonderful shorts out there from established and up and coming authors, so find some.
Differences speak to the similarities
Let's explore two stories, very different in subject, style and era, but by comparison can help show the power of short stories; the Vampires in the Lemon Grove (2016) by Karen Russell and The Story of an Hour (1894) by Kate Chopin.
I like them both for very different reasons and yet each focused tightly on the characters they explored. In Chopin's work, a Victorian wife receives news of her husband's sudden accidental death and discovers the news is actually a relief to her. It is a realization that horrifies her - her joy at his demise and her new freedom. In Vampires, Russell explores a relationship that is facing eternity and the way even such immovable objects as vampires can grow apart.
Chopin's ending in The Story of an Hour has a surprise and sudden finality, leaving the reader as shocked as the wife, while Russell's ending is vague and leads to speculation for the characters and the reader. Chopin has almost no dialogue and Russell has lovely soliloquies from the main character. Different in almost every way, yet both shine their small medium.
My shorts run the gambit
My own shorts vary wildly - they let me try out different flavors, styles, and techniques to see what suits. My Own Dark Way was my first gas lamp horror, told in first person narrative. My dystopian short, Dandelion, part of a protest anthology, hearkens to Ray Bradbury's 1984. The Furnished Flat explores the viewpoint of anthropomorphic furniture and my newest short, for a collection of retold Cinderella Tales, explores the idea of becoming a princess on your own terms, within the backdrop of a wrestling ring.
Short stories have allowed me to explore the Salem witch trials, selkie legend, a talking chinchilla and Lizzie Borden collectibles, all through the lens of the medium. (Psst, if you sign up for the newsletter, you get the Lizzie Borden short for free.)
Elements for Writers
I am no expert - I look to others for their pearls of wisdom, but I will share some paraphrased thoughts from Kurt Vonnegut that also ring true for me:
Every character should want something - even if it is a glass of water
Start as close to the end as possible
Don't waste a stranger's time - make it something worthwhile for them to read
Write to please one person
I'd love to hear your thoughts on short stories - your favorites, why you read them or why you don't. I don't believe there is a magic formula for shorts but instead a buffet of small bites that you can load onto your plate to savor and enjoy.