Short Stories

As I am counting down the hours until my band’s first show in eight years, I find myself strapped for time trying to get everything ready. There are things in the office that need to be finished before the weekend. There are pieces of gear, guitars, cabinets, and all sorts of other items to load into the car. There is a drive across the entire metropolitan area through the immediate aftermath of rush hour traffic.

Time, it seems, is everything, and it made me think of today’s topic, namely, writing short stories as opposed to novella or novel-length pieces.

Personally, I have always found short stories to be much harder than longer pieces. Not only do you have to have a great idea, the idea must be big enough to fit in the story, but not so big that only a longer piece would do it justice. It must have some kind of a hook or a premise that makes the story interesting, but it must also not rely entirely on gimmicks to be effective.

A short story must say a lot with fairly little. It demands brevity and focus, because a writer does not have the luxury of space to make his or her characters likeable, the plot interesting, and the premise effective. It is not about making the word count and taking as much time and space as the Big Idea requires. It is about intentionally limiting the size of an idea to something manageable within the format while still giving it the depth it deserves.

A classic science fiction story, “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov, is a great example of a Big Idea wrapped into a short story format. It asks a question: what would a world be like if it had no night, no stars, no way to relate to the natural phenomenon we take for granted? What would happen if for the first time in thousands of years, the night fell?

The story does not have a massive cast of characters, and it does not create extensive histories for them. They serve as the tools of the narrative, getting the point across without getting sidetracked. As much as the story is at its heart about human condition, it is not focused on the two characters’ condition, because that is not its focus.

The Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, a perennial favorite of mine, work precisely because they focus on a small cast of characters, and are always centered on a particular problem Holmes and Watson have to solve. Taken individually, they relate to a world known to the readers, and when a particular aspect of that world is brought into focus, it is only because that aspect is relevant to the story as a clue for Holmes.

Compare that to “Dune” with its cast of characters. Frank Herbert gets into the heads of the major players in the series, giving them personal ambitions, struggles, aspirations, philosophies, and goals. He uses the expansive scope of the books to give detail to both his protagonists, the side characters, and the universe at large. Similarly, “Lord of the Rings” novels follow the same path, affording the Middle Earth enough space and playing with a number of interconnected themes. In both cases, the authors can afford to include side plots, minor characters, notes on the history and the background of their literary universes.

This is why I have always considered writing short stories to be a difficult endeavor, not in the least because the slightest slip in focus may rob the story of its effectiveness. In a novel, a writer can succumb to the temptation to develop a potential story thread or to develop a secondary character, to write a treatise on the history of the world the characters inhabit or to give detailed descriptions of the environment. In a short story, such literary detours are rarely useful, unless they are of direct relevance to the narrative. Or at least this is what I think. It would be interesting to see the opposing viewpoint from authors who find it easier to write short stories than longer pieces.

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