Enjoying the short story
What is a short story? Obviously, it is a story that is short. But what is “short”? Is it ten pages? Twenty pages? Sixty pages? One hundred pages? At what point does a piece of writing cease to be a “short story” and start to be a short novel (novella)? The fact is, nobody knows – or more precisely, no one agrees. It depends on the piece of literature, the writer’s intention and the reader’s opinion.
Still, there are a few qualities that can probably be ascribed to all short stories:
- First, they can be read in one sitting (though perhaps a long sitting, sometimes). They are not the kind of literature you would take for entertainment on a long trip.
- Second, they have a certain focus. They concentrate the reader’s attention on some aspect of life.
- Third, they aim to entertain and/or teach the reader about life, usually both at the same time.
Because short stories are written with a specific focus in mind, they also employ specific techniques. However, just as with length, there are no clear rules distinguishing the techniques used in writing short stories from those used in writing novels. It depends on the short story. Let us take a look at some types.
Plot-driven short stories
The very first short stories were often closely related to earlier “folk tales” or “fairytales.” Short, entertaining, often surprising and emotional, they found a large paying public. Gradually they expanded to include adventures, legends and travel accounts, often in far away places with strange-sounding names. Such tales were “reported” in the third person. Their characters were rather like those found in fairytales – not terribly interesting in themselves, but put in places and made to experience events that were interesting. It was the “plot” – the sequence of events in the story – that was important.
A good example of such a plot-driven story is “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving (1783–1859). This is the tale of a school teacher who falls in love with a local girl and is chased out of town by a murderous headless horseman. Tales like these were the well-written TV sitcoms of their day.
Artistic short stories
Other authors view the short story as a form of art, not just entertainment. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) believed that the short story offered a unique opportunity to focus all the elements of writing to create a single impression on a reader. Using this technique, Poe almost single-handedly created the modern horror story. Novelists like Mary Shelley in Frankenstein had already used horror to sell literature. But Poe reduced gothic horror to its essentials by focusing it within the short space of one story read at one sitting. Poe also pioneered another gold mine for writers, the mystery story. His short story, “The Purloined Letter,” also sets out to do just one thing – present the reader with a puzzle and then have a detective solve it. Of course, the mystery story long ago turned into the mystery novel and into big business, but it still bears Poe’s mark.
Moralistic short stories
Not all short stories invite the reader in for a pleasant time. Some act more like a bracing slap in the face (“Get a grip on yourself!”). In 1843, Charles Dickens wrote such a story in the tradition of the British Christmas ghost story – the famous “A Christmas Carol”. Although it approaches 100 pages and thus qualifies as a novella, it also fulfills all the requirements of a good short story. It can be (and on Christmas often is) read in one sitting. It has one clear focus – the fate of Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas. And it both delivers a moral lesson and entertains. Is it possible that anyone who has ever read or seen it can forget the characters created by Dickens in this story? Above all, who can forget the moral lesson so thoroughly taught to Scrooge? At the start of the story he is a miserable, miserly man who wishes that “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” By the end he is transformed:
[Scrooge] became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world... and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
Rarely has a moral point been made more powerfully.
Some authors have specialized in what might be called the “mousetrap” story. This is a story that ends with a very surprising – and often dark – twist. In a sense, this is also a plot-driven story, but here the author uses the plot to “set up” the reader. If you have seen or read stories by Roald Dahl, you know what it means to be caught in such a “trap.” Two masters of this kind of short story are Saki (H. H. Munro) in Great Britain and O’Henry (W. S. Porter) in the United States. In Saki’s story “The Open Window” a man recovering from a nervous breakdown sees ghosts and then....(sorry, can’t tell you). In O’Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi” two newlyweds sacrifice what they love best in order to give the other a treasured Christmas gift and then ....(sorry, can’t tell you this one either).
Modernist short stories
Around the time of World War One, Modernist writers revolutionized the short story. New and experimental forms of writing were employed and “shocking” themes were taken up. Instead of being “plot-driven” – with a definite beginning, middle and end – stories appear to be more a “slice of life”. There is no obvious action or moral lesson or surprising twist at the end. Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” is like this. The entire action consists of a man and a woman who wait for a train and talk to one another in so few words that it takes real concentration to make out what they are discussing. Once you concentrate, however, a moving tale of love and betrayal emerges. This is a key aspect of Modernism – the attempt to draw the readers into the story by making them interpret it. Modernist short stories challenge the reading public to think anew, to re-examine ideas and beliefs.
Working with short stories
By and large, the same techniques of literary analysis used on novels can be used on short stories. However, there are specific ways these may be related to short stories. Before we close, let us review the techniques and see how they may be applied.
The action of a story is called its plot. In a short story it generally revolves around one conflict or crisis. This tight focus keeps the reader’s attention. There is little room for the kind of sub-plots found in novels. Most short stories are “plot-driven” like “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” or “The Gift of the Magi.” Such short stories have a standard structure;
- Exposition – the introduction of the characters and the conflict
- Complication – the action creates an increasingly complicated situation, producing rising tension
- Climax – the high point is reached at which the conflict comes to a head.
- Resolution – the conflict is resolved and tension falls back to normal
This is much the same dramatic structure as that found in a play or movie, and for the same reason. Things must proceed swiftly, at one sitting or within a few hours at the theater.
Usually a short story will have one or two main characters and then a cast of minor characters with which the main character interacts. The main character – the “protagonist” – undergoes some change. Minor characters are usually “flat” or “two dimensional”. In a play, they would be brought to life by the actors portraying them. In a short story, they are given the simple characteristics needed for them to fulfill their function in the plot. It takes a master like Charles Dickens to create a set of interesting characters within the narrow space of a short story. Characterization became more important in short stories with the coming of Modernism, which packs more meaning into a small space.
A short story generally has only one setting for the same reason that it usually has only one main character – focus and space. However, unlike a novel, the setting of a short story may be the single most important element in it, the very reason for the story. For example, in her modernist short story “Kew Gardens,” Virginia Woolf dispenses with plot and main characters entirely. The setting of the story is a park, Kew Gardens in London, through which a series of persons walk.
Point of view
Most short stories are written from the omniscient (“all-knowing”) or the “third person” (reporter’s) point of view. The reason is simple. It allows the author to convey a great deal of information quickly to the reader – a “must” in a short story. Sometimes, however, the first person perspective (“I”) can be used to great effect, as in Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, which begins with the words:
True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?
This also coveys a great deal of information in a very short space.
A theme is an idea or set of ideas around which a story is created. Unlike a novel, a short story generally focuses on one theme, much like a poem. Of course, if the object of the story is primarily to entertain – as in a “mousetrap” story – then theme may be of only minor importance. However, most short stories in literature aim to do more than entertain. They try to shed light on some of the more basic questions of human existence. When you read a short story, ask yourself what the intention of the author was when he or she sat down to write it. They must have had a reason. What did they want to tell you? If you can answer that, you can find the theme – as you interpret it.