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Write Great Short Stories, Like Screaming Meteors

5 April, 2008

There’s nothing quite like the challenge of writing a short story, unfolding a conflict within the confines of roughly 2,000-3,000 words. Australian author, Susan Midalia (speaking on Radio National) says the challenge for short story writers is to use language economically while also creating an ‘evocative tale’. Not an easy task.

The best stories shake you up. When you finish, you put down the story and all you can say is WOW!!’ Here’s how Stephen King describes it:

What I want to start with is something that comes at me full-bore, like a big, hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky. I want the ancient pleasure that probably goes back to the cave: to be blown clean out of myself for a while, as violently as a fighter pilot who pushes the eject button in his F-111.

However, writers are often advised to abandon short stories and instead write a novel, which will increase their chance of being published. According to Midalia, there may be some basis for this advice, given that short story collections don’t sell as well as novels. According to her, the reason for the novel’s popularity is that readers think this form of fiction requires more time and work to create. I guess she means that if people think more thinking/creative work is involved to produce a novel, it is the better buy.

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I’m not sure about her view. We sometimes tend to buy novels simply because they are more available than short story collections.

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More importantly, we may pick a novel because it can offer a long and involving read. The fictional world of the novel is often complex, with many events and changes. In contrast, short stories often focus a single episode in one character’s life.

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Publishers respond to this desire for ‘big’ reads by publishing fatter books. The trend now is to provide  what I call ‘books on steroids’, books that weigh in at well over 600 pages. As an example, I went to a bookshop to find a small-sized novel, one that would fit easily in my backpack for my 10-day walk. Nearly all the books on the ‘current top 10’ section of the bookshop were of the steroid kind—a big format and many, many pages. Compared to these books, a collection of short stories may seem so slight as to be worthless to buy or read.

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Luckily, there are still writers who love writing short stories and equally, there are readers who are short story fans.  What’s the attraction? American writer Flannery O’Connor described it this way:

A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.

Some of my favourite contemporary short story writers who create this kind of depth include Alice Munro, Cate Kennedy, Margo Lanagan, and Etgar Keret.

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So what makes some short stories great, what King thinks of as the ‘big hot meteor’ ones? Here’s what I think. (Some authors’ quotes below are from the Story website.)

Great stories create an authentic world and keep you in it.

Every element of a great short story rings true—the characters, their conflicts, the setting. No matter how alien the story’s world is to you personally, its elements fit and support each other so well that you enter it effortlessly and can understand the main character’s needs and actions.

Such stories stay with you. You find yourself mulling over what-ifs for hours or days afterwards: What if he hadn’t opened the door? What if she had said this instead?


It’s impossible to immerse yourself in this world if the author keeps intruding, making you aware that you’re not in the story’s world but in your own world, reading a story. This magical link is broken when writers become self-indulgent, less concerned with telling a story than in commenting, flaunting their knowledge, or displaying language acrobatics. Stephen King, writing in the NY Times Sunday Book Review, describes such stories as ‘show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting….’

Great stories provide insight, and do so with subtlety and depth.

According to Midali, the writer V. S. Pritchett defined the short story as something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.

To create this glimpse, the writer may focus on one incident and expect you to fill in the blanks. When you read, you take whatever the writer gives you—actions, talk and silences—and intuit the rest. Jackie Kay, a prize-winning short story writer, calls the short story a ‘tough form’ that provides a ‘space for the reader to come in and imagine and create.’ The challenge for the short story writer is to work out what, within a small story space, to make known and what to omit or only hint at.

Great stories dig deep.

The best stories don’t stay on the surface of the situation, leading you along a flat plain from the first sentence to the last. They dig deep into rich lodes of emotion, symbolism, and human nature to create layers of meaning, a sense of deep currents moving beneath the actions.

They don’t preach a theme or message but let these deeper meanings unfold in a way that seems right for the subject and characters. Flannery O’Connor said a good story has its meaning ’embodied in it…made concrete in it’, so much so that the theme cannot be easily separated from the story itself.

Great stories are strong to the very end.

Some stories start well, then fall flat at the end. A great story’s ending does more than simply stop the story’s action. It does not finish in a way that is glaringly obvious or a cop-out. For example, nearly every introductory workshop has someone who comes up with this one: And then I woke up to discover—IT WAS JUST A DREAM!!

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The ending of a great short story may not be dramatic or even clear. But it moves the story onto a larger stage, creating a satisfying sense that life has changed somehow for the characters. This change may not be spelled out but readers get an evocative hint about what is changing, has changed, or may change.

Great stories take chances.

Great short stories do not always follow the rules.

Some writers are afraid to let a story rip from their minds. They pick something safe and think they can bring it to life by applying the CPR of writing technique. It doesn’t work that way.

Stephen King slams stories that feel ‘…guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open’, that seem to be ‘written for editors and teachers rather than for readers,’ or that offer up ‘some fraidy-cat’s writing school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream-of-consciousness about what Bob Dylan once called “the true meaning of a pear”.’

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. mrs. h. permalink
    1 May, 2008 12:18 am

    Interesting stuff. I’m currently on a Short Story Appreciation Quest, as I’m a habitual hater of stories who’s decided that my dislike of them is really rather pathetic. So here I am, reading short stories and trying to formulate theories about them. See the beginning of my quest here:

    http://neverenoughhomework.wordpress.com/2008/04/21/celebrity-guest-poster-mr-tulgey-wood/

    Like

  2. 7 April, 2008 1:57 am

    It’s unfortunate for our society that short stories and even poetry have been positioned as lesser artforms. Writers and readers of these arts will just have to continue to advocate on their behalf.

    Thanks for your comment. On your blog, you describe short stories as creating ‘maximum with minimum’. What a good way to describe the discipline required. Like Japanese calligraphy, where those who truly master the art become one with the brush creating the characters.

    Like

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