Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Short Stories - worth the bother?

I fell into writing short stories.

At the time I thought I didn't have the focus to write a novel.  A novel would take too much concentration and sustained effort, I thought.  There were so many words to assemble (around 100,000 seemed to be the target for a modern novel - give or take the odd 10,000 or so) better to stick to the smaller stuff, easier to manage, I thought.

I'd arrived at the short story format from Flash fiction. Even shorter, snappy pieces, sometimes as few as 100 words make up a flash, thought they may be longer up to about 1000 or 1500.  I became addicted to writing this type of... format very early on.

Flash, I felt, was the easiest form of writing - quick, clean... immediate.  I wrote this size story effortlessly. Sit down (usually with a prompt) and  the words just flow out.  In about an hour I would have a piece of some 600 words (generally) which (usually) said what I wanted it to say.  Perhaps I'd spend the next hour or ten days picking over whether this word was better than that word in a sentence.  Quickly I learned that this meant the piece was 'cooked'.

Then I started reading books on how to write and I found received opinion turned my instincts on their head.  The rest of the writing world figured the exact opposite to me.  Novel writing, because of the freedom the large word count gives you, was the easiest... size of creative writing, flash fiction (or as they are sometimes called short-short stories - for obvious reasons) was perceived as the hardest, because in a flash piece every word has to work for its living. The beginning may only be implied, a reader may feel thrown into the story, and the ending can, with a few clues, be left up to that reader to resolve.  But there's no room  for redundant words, sloppy or flabby prose.

So where does that leave short stories?

Well, I've found that, again, they are a seperate art form.  They are not, cut down versions of a novel written because you couldn't think up enough to make it to the magical 100,000 word count.  And they are not stretched flash stories.

A good short story should be a well-crafted piece of work that tells a tale.  It will have a beginning, middle and a resolution; the characters and dialogue will progress the plot just as in a novel - but the event horizon of the story is necessarily tighter than that of a novel. It covers less – generally in time – than a novel, but the play of emotions can be much richer for all that.

As Stephen King expresses it: A short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.

If you want rolling sagas set over generations, encompassing world wars, family feuds covering hundreds of years and the like, then a short story probably isn’t going to fit that in.  What a short is good at, though, is highlighting an individual event and telling the tale surrounding it, sometimes in poignant detail.  In a good short story, the reader gets to know the characters in that situation, that small piece of the characters’ timeline, much better than they ever could in a rolling epic which may only touch on motives, emotions, reactions and consequences of that one event of many in the plot.  After all if a novel were written in as much depth all through as a short story, the book would never be finished!

Once I realised the differences it allowed me to enjoy the three very different formats and lengths available to them to tell a tale - and that's really what it's all about.  What do you think?  Leave a comment below...

-oOo-

Read more on this topic in the excellent Writers' Tricks of the Trade, October edition. I'm on page 18 with a piece titled 'Short Stories - Small but Perfectly Formed'. And catch me on Twitter to discuss your ideas on short stories at @AvisHG, or on FaceBook at Avis Hickman-Gibb - Writer.  Buy my collection of short and flash stories in UK here, and in US here

1 comment:

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