What is a Short Story?

photo by Mario Sanchez

by Paul Curd

The average reader might think this is a stupid question (obviously, it’s a story that’s short), but students of creative writing know it’s not quite as simple as that.

In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories (1981), the great exponent of the short story V.S. Pritchett described the form as independent of the novel thus: ‘the novel tends to tell us everything whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely’. Anton Chekov once described reading a short story as ‘rather like drinking a glass of vodka’. It should be quick and sharp and hit you with a kind of shock that makes you see the world in a new way, if only for a short while.

Pritchett agreed, suggesting that the short story should be a ‘glimpse through’ resembling a painting or even a song which ‘we can take in at once, yet bring the recesses and contours of larger experiences to the mind’. During the twentieth century, Pritchett thought the short story writer had become ‘less bound by contrived plot, more intent on the theme buried in the heart. Readers used to speak of “losing” themselves in a novel or a story: the contemporary addict turns to the short story to find himself.’

Pritchett went on:

Many of the great short-story writers have not succeeded as novelists: Kipling and Chekhov are examples and, to my mind, D.H. Lawrence’s stories are superior to his novels. For myself, the short story springs from a spontaneously poetic as distinct from a prosaic impulse – yet is not ‘poetical’ in the sense of a shuddering sensibility. Because the short story has to be succinct and has to suggest things that have been ‘left out’, are, in fact, there all the time, the art calls for a mingling of the skills of the rapid reporter or traveller with an eye for incident and an ear for real speech, the instincts of the poet and ballad-maker, and the sonnet writer’s concealed discipline of form. The writer has to cultivate the gift for aphorism and wit. A short story is always a disclosure, often an evocation – as in Lawrence or Faulkner – frequently the celebration of character at bursting point: it approaches the mythical. Above all, more than the novelist who is sustained by his discursive manner, the writer of short stories has to catch our attention at once not only by the novelty of his people and scene but by the distinctiveness of his voice, and to hold us by the ingenuity of his design: for what we ask for is the sense that our now restless lives achieve shape at times and that our emotions have their architecture. Particularly in the writers of this century we also notice the sense of people as strangers. A modern story comes to an open end. People are left carrying the aftermath of their tale into a new day of which, alarmingly, they can as yet know nothing.

Margaret Atwood has said that she feels uncomfortable when asked about what constitutes a ‘good’ story. She avoids making lists or devising rules for stories. ‘We don’t judge good stories by the application to them of some set of external measurements, as we judge giant pumpkins at the Fall Fair.’ I think that’s fine if you’re an extremely talented and experienced writer like Margaret Atwood. For those of us not (yet) in that league, I think it’s important to stick to the basics and to bear in mind that we are writing stories (presumably) because we want them to be read. We therefore need to give some thought to what our readers want – and the more ‘commercial’ we want our fiction to be, the more thought we need to give them.

For example, I would suggest that most readers would expect a good short story to have the following key components:

– An insight into the human condition
– A small group of believable characters
– A convincing background
– A good opening
– Conflict
– Suspense
– Structure (i.e. a beginning, a middle and an end)
– A satisfying ending

‘A short story is always a disclosure,’ said V. S. Pritchett in the above quote. James Joyce referred to this as ‘epiphany’, a moment when a person, an event or a thing is seen in a light so new that it is as if it has never been seen before. Someone in the story, usually the protagonist, then has to deal with (or avoid) what has occurred. The character may meet the change head on, or they might try to behave as though everything is the same as before. Either way, the disclosure or epiphany cannot be ignored by the reader. Check out, for example, Chekhov’s ‘Let Me Sleep’ or Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Revelations’.

Edith Wharton called a volume of her short stories Crucial Instances. A good short story should show us a character at a crucial instant in their life and trace the effect of that instant upon them. That, I think, is something every aspiring writer ought to keep in mind.

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