Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Art of the Short Story, Defined

Back when I was getting my creative writing/classic literature degree, we did a lot of short story writing. Within a class setting it made sense: professors were trying to assess whether we each understood how to develop a plot, characters, etc. and who has time to write a novel, during university?  (Well, not if you take your classwork seriously and are in a demanding program!)

I got a journalism degree at the same time, and pretty much immediately went into news writing and editing. So I put the short story aside for many years and thought little about it. Those years at school had left me with a healthy respect for the form, and I still admire people who do it well.

Recently I had a discussion with a friend about how long a short story needs to be. I suggested to her that it needs to be long enough to develop certain elements - characters, solid conflict, tension, enough description to establish an atmosphere, etc. Personally I have seen someone do that maybe three times through the years, in under say, 1500 words. Skilled writers can do it under 5,000, and many legitimate short story contests ask for stories around that length. But I would say at least 2,000 and up is best. Oh, there are a lot of 1000-word "short stories" out there, and almost all are crap.

But not all. In recent years I ran into a short by British writer Clayton Littlewood that was astounding - it is called Grindr. He used to have it up on his blog, and I recall that when I read it I found my jaw on the floor. I was so moved because of the quality of his writing, but also because the thing was so short. It must be maybe 3-4,000. No more. Here was a short-short story in the hands of a truly skilled storyteller; he knew exactly what he was doing with an often difficult form. He seemed surprised - gracious and humble - when I wrote to express my congratulations on it, but Littlewood is a master of language, and well-versed in building plot and suspense, even within the confines of a small word count. He has removed it from his website now, but has it published within an anthology of short pieces called Six Stories.

One can spend a few hours on Twitter or at writer-oriented blogs and run into a plethora of contests for writing short stories. Lately too many of them involve such silly premises as writing a short story of 250 words or less. I ran into one that wanted short stories less than 100 words!  Ugh! These are not short stories!  They are exercises in writing a succinct paragraph, perhaps, but they are not short stories. Am I being a snob?  Insisting upon a specific, narrow definition?  Or am I protecting the integrity of an ages-old genre?

From before our ancestors were literate, the short story has entertained. It took a bit of imagination, and not a little amount of memorization skills, to hold an audience captive for a bit with a short narrative. In a time before the novel, these narratives involved the necessary elements of characters, plot and structure, atmospheric description.  There had to be a stated conflict, and someone in the story had to move toward resolving that conflict. This has formed the basis of story for us - whether the story happens within a novel, film, or short story. Notice I say "basis" - in the modern era, many influences have changed the structural rules of each of these forms so that there are instances of each which stray from the traditional ideas.

It is said that the advent of photography changed art forever. Where once a painting recorded the scene before the artist's eyes - and used light and color and movement to emphasize certain truths about that scene - photography replaced that function.  The photograph could record reality as never before.  So painting was forced to find a way to convey truths beyond black and white reality. Thus, new forms were born - impressionistic painting, abstract painting, and others.  It is no coincidence that the masters of these styles worked at the forefront of art in the decades following the birth of the photograph.


In the same sense, the advent of film pushed the novel and the short story. I think it may be argued that before the development of cinematography as not only a recording of moving pictures but an art form in its own right - probably by the latter 1930s - novels contained more detailed descriptive passages. But the reading public soon became accustomed to a panoramic atmosphere unfolding before their eyes; they were taken through an entire story in a few hours. Perhaps they lost patience in the end for description in dime store, mainstream novels. (I would argue that this factor diminished forever our ability to imagine detailed visual scenes without the crutch of film - which feeds it to us in such a way that we don't have to do the work, but that is a blog for another day.)

Films did even more to change short stories.  Because most films in the early decades of the medium ran a logical narrative - story with character and traditionally structured plot - short stories were pushed to find a new, innovative path of expression.  This is the root of the modern tendency of the short story to offer alternative and highly unusual structures.

It may be argued that America contributed more to the birth of the short story than most places. The genre rose as the world of magazines grew in America.  It flourished in the late-19th and early-20th century popular magazine bought by a large part of the American population and beyond - where ever issue contained either a short story or a piece of serialized novel. Categories such as the romance story, the murder mystery, the sci-fi story, the western, and others - were established during this period. In the early years, the narrative structure was traditional. But, of course, then came film . . .

In more recent decades, writers have experimented with various styles in the short story form. Now, a short story doesn't necessarily need a traditional narrative plot (although many still have one).  So then, what constitutes a short story now, in 2016?  If we have stretched tradition and invited innovation for decades, often very successfully, then what constitutes a true short story? Can it be defined?

Of course. And it is because of this definition that I have to scoff at contests for 250-word "stories".  A quick study of the modern definitions of "story" in various dictionaries might leave the researcher confused: most definitions involve words like "narrative" and "tale", which of course mean the same thing as "story".  But I like this one, from the Cambridge Dictionary: "a description, either true or imagined, of a connected series of events". That gives us something to begin with. Descriptions from every major dictionary go on to add that a "story" informs, teaches, amuses, entertains, and/or changes a reader or listener.  Also inherent is the idea that the narrative somehow evolves.

A writer cannot evolve a narrative in 250 words. A writer cannot successfully persuade or change, either the narrative or the reader. You may amuse. You many even entertain for a few minutes. But you have not used narrative as an art form to guide the reader through any evolution. You have merely written an amusing few paragraphs, and although it is a useful exercise it isn't any great accomplishment fit for a contest! As a writer, you will learn nothing serious about the art of the short story.

So my argument is in the naming of the contest a "short story" contest. A "short story" is far more than that.  If you want to learn the form, and do it well, following these guidelines:

  • Establish tension early on. As with any fictional work, you are obligated as a writer to catch the reader's interest early and hold it.  In novel-writing we speak of establishing conflict - you may or may not have time - within the confines of the first few paragraphs of a short story - to attempt something that grand. But you should establish an uncomfortable feeling in the reader and/or a large question in their minds. Drive, which has its birth in conflict, is absolutely necessary in a good short story. 
  • Work toward change, above all. Something must evolve.  Either the character must change/grow/learn, or the situation must change in a surprising way. I would suggest that the best stories might combine both.  But you must have a different truth at the end of the story than was present at the beginning. The reader must see the world differently than they did a few pages ago. 
  • Don't be overly mindful of length, because it stifles your creative urge; don't try to keep it short nor try to achieve a certain length. If you are gearing it toward a contest where the length is say, 5,000 words for example, you should have a feel as a writer for the difference between 5,000 and 10,000 or 15,000, right from the first word you write.  So you know whether you are in the ballpark as you write. When you finish you can edit to correct word count. But for now, be more mindful of the structure - the drive and the evolution - and just get the story down. 
  • Never forget that the same elements which make for a great short story are the same that make a great novel, and don't lose sight of them. Keep in mind elements such as:  description and establishing a mood or atmosphere; narrative drive (already discussed); characterization (strong characters make a strong story); catch and hold the attention of the reader; avoid  clich├ęs and work on being original; employ the use of elements such as metaphor; mind that dialogue sounds true to the characaters, and that each character speaks differently; watch the misspellings and grammar.  You get the picture. Treat your short story with the same technical respect that you would treat a novel. 
Meanwhile, I won't discourage you from participation in the sillier contests for "short story" writing. Just make sure you aren't wasting time; the best of us get caught up in online games and useless exercises that help us avoid the real work of applying ourselves to our writing. And make sure you are truly going to learn something valuable that you can apply to real writing.  If that is to write a more interesting paragraph or scene, fine. But call it a paragraph or scene. Out of respect for an art form that has entertained, taught, and helped us evolve for centuries, call something lesser what it is.


Clayton Littlewood is much underrated short story writer, diarist, journalist and playwright. You can see his Amazon page at Clayton Littlewood .  His personal website is at http://www.claytonlittlewood.com  .  

See my short stories:  Frozen, Lightning (my first attempt at the paranormal!) and Quandary, at Amazon and BarnesandNoble .