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Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Writing – the short story

For many years I’ve added to my home library collections of short stories. Until the advent of the e-reader, received wisdom in publishing was that short story collections ‘don’t sell’. What they meant, perhaps, was that they don’t sell in vast numbers so are not worthwhile expending effort on them. However, now any form of writing can be obtained on an e-reader, and enjoyed, and the collected works of many classic authors can be downloaded for very little financial outlay (check out the Delphi Complete Works).

A short story in its literary form is supposed to be a brief fictional prose narrative, often involving one connected episode, a concentrated form, dependent for its success on feeling and suggestion. The writer must attempt to succinctly create a fictional world in the moment. Stories attempt to reflect the life that is lived by all of us, and the short form has to do it without benefit of the depth and breadth of a novel.

And, as with the novel, a short story has the potential to invoke any number of aspects of writing.

·       The plot – the sequence of related events that shape the narrative.

·       The characters – the people who play their parts in the narrative.

·       Setting – the place and time where the story’s action unfolds.

·       Point of view - a consistent perspective on the characters and their actions.

·       Style – how the author chooses to relate the story.

·       Theme – often the submerged back-bone of the story, a unifying idea that provides insight into the human condition.

The length of the short story will be dictated by a number of factors:

·       Complexity of the plot

·       Number of characters

·       Duration of the tale

·       Intended audience

·       It doesn’t have enough content to be a longer piece

That intended audience might be a publisher, an editor, a competition, a magazine, or simply personal preference.

A short story can cover the events of a brief episode or encompass action that takes years to conclude.

The author needs to use a scalpel to excise anything that is not pertinent to the original intention.

If a short story has to fit into 2,000 words then there is little scope for detailed exposition and rising action, and so on.

The nub of the conflict – the problem to be resolved by the protagonist – must be introduced very early.

If the story is allowed more words, say 6,000, then a more leisurely pace can be adopted, though again every word has to do its job – creating the world, the atmosphere, the characterisation and the emotional journey of the protagonist.

Usually, the so-called literary short stories have more words while genre fiction writers are quite content to settle for less to do the job.
Regardless of length, the writer of short stories must show the reader what is important through the dramatic action of the plot and the other elements of the story, and not just explicitly tell the reader what to think.
The illusion of reality should always be sustained by the plot right up to the end. This reality is enhanced by character creation. Dialogue is a useful tool here, conveying mood and emotion. With the wordage permitted, the writer must suggest enough complexity in the individual to affect the reader’s emotions. Mood can be affected by time and place, and setting is important, though ideally this will be achieved with a few deft sketches rather than a full-blown travelogue. Creating a visual place enables the reader to ‘see’ the action more definitively, in effect to be part of the scene, involved in the drama.
Drama is perceived through the eyes of the protagonist. In short stories, it is preferable to limit the number of characters and viewpoints. The first-person narrator could be a major character or a minor character who is a good observer. The third-person narrator can be omniscient, seeing into all characters’ hearts and minds, or limited omniscient, seeing into one or, possibly, two characters.

Some novelists are not comfortable with the short story; in their case, there is not enough scope to create the world the writer perceives; only a novel will do. And the same goes for some readers: they can’t seem to get lost in a short piece while they can easily become immersed in a thick novel. To each their own.
Writing short fiction can help to hone your writing. You have to convey scene, character, plot, setting, and emotion within a concise form, so every word should be selected to that end. There is little room for extraneous padding or ‘fluff’. In some ways, certain short story writers are similar to poets – selecting the right word to convey the precise feeling or moment.
Just browsing along my bookshelves, these are some of the short story collections I can see:

Collected Stories by John Cheever, Roald Dahl, Ruth Rendell, Eudora Welty, E M Forster, O Henry, D H Lawrence, W Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, Anton Chekov, Noel Coward, Saki, Jack London, Edith Wharton, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Katherine Mansfield, Henry James, Elizabeth Spencer; Truman Capote – A Reader; Stanley Ellin – The Speciality of the House; Leslie Charteris – Señor Saint; Willa Catha – Great short works; Frederick Forsyth – The Veteran; Ring Lardner – Best Short Stories; James Joyce – Dubliners; Hugh Garner – Best Stories; Hermann Hesse – Stories from Five Decades; Elizabeth Spencer – Stories; August Derleth – The Return of Solar Pons; Arthur Conan Doyle – The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes; Ernest Hemingway – The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories; Jeffery Deaver – Twisted; Joseph Conrad – Typhoon and other stories; Doris Lessing – This was the Old Chief’s Country, Stephen King – Everything’s Eventual, and G K Chesterton - Father Brown.  

This limited list doesn’t touch upon the horror, fantasy and science fiction shelves; these genres have spawned many hundreds of short stories.
If you haven’t tackled short story writing – read a collection or two and see what can be achieved by the masters such as those mentioned above, or Margaret Atwood, Ambrose Bierce, Ray Bradbury, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson to name a few more.
Even today, short stories definitely have a story to tell.

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