March 23rd, 2011

What is a short story?

In honour of The Year of the Short Story, I’ve been wanting to do a short-story post. I decided to do a “What is?” post because I’ve read a few things lately that challenged, for good or ill, my personal definition of the story. And that reminded me that this definition *is* very personal, so I bet if I make this list, lots of people will be able to add to it, or debate various points, or tell me I’m wrong entirely. And the best way to celebrate the short story, I think, is to engage with the form: debate it, read it, write it, and think about it. So let’s do that:

Short stories have character(s) and events. Let’s get the really controversial stuff out of the way first: in my mind, short stories have one or more characters doing things, or having things done to them, or reacting to events, in a particular time and place. I’m ok with characters that aren’t human: dogs, aliens, faerie princesses, even a well-written tree character might exist somewhere. And the events can be minor–in Jincey Willet’s “Justine Laughs at Death,” the very dramatic story is actually a couple conversations on the phone. Much is *said*, and threatened, but there are few actual events. Still a really powerful story though. I think many writers are stronger at either character (Katherine Mansfield, anyone?) or event (Guy de Maupassant?) and just kind of take a swipe at the other side, which is fine if you can pull it off. But even if the story is mainly the creation and explanation of these wonderful characters, they need to do things sometime. And even if the wild logic of events *seems* to stand on their own, there still have to be people living them out. I really think there has to be a throughline of personality, and an internal logic to events to make a story. I know, craziness–have at me.

Short stories are short in word-count, and use their shortness for concentration of meaning. There is no exact word-count that defines a short story for me–I’ve seen some great ones that were more than 10 000 words, over forty pages. I can’t put a cut-off on the actual length, yet there comes a certain point where the scope changes the tone, and it just doesn’t feel story-ish anymore. Slowly evolving characters with lots of back-story, a build to a fore-shadowed climax of action, and then a reflection period after that–I guess you could do anything in a short story, but those things to me seem inherently novel-ish.

I just finished reading Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (for the first time; am behind) and though it is usually termed a novella, and 117 pages I think that’s proper, I’ve also seen it deemed a short story. I think there might be a 117-page short story out there, but Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not it. Capote uses the pages for things that, in my definition, novelists do: framing of the story in future and past (Joe Bell’s story about Africa), situating the characters in lives outside the story (the arrival of Doc, which doesn’t influence the action one way or another, just teaches us a bit about Holly), and neat set pieces that sort of flesh out the characters but are mainly just neat set pieces. Don’t get me wrong, as a novella I think it’s brilliant–but the length gives it a very different flavour from a short story.

For a true short story, the length appears not a constraint or a limit, just the amount of words it takes to show what needs to be shown. As I said above, short stories are not constrained by length; they are exactly as long as they need to be to give the reader the joys, sorrows, laughs, or whatever the author wants to give in that space. But they are shaped like stories, whatever their lengths. I’ve read a few stories recently that read like the first chapter of a novel, or maybe the fifth chapter of a novel (I’m in the midst of judging a story contest at the moment, so I have a wide variety of these on-hand). The first-chapter ones, you get a lot of background and insight into the characters and their problems, and they’re sort of mulling over what to do about them; then it’s over. In the fifth-chapter stories, there’s tonnes of action, drama, intensity, but you don’t know anything about the characters or what all these events mean to them, or where anything is headed.

Both these issues used to come up a lot when I was teaching high-school students to write stories (teaching is perhaps too strong a word; try encouraging). When I urged them to give the reader a more complete, consolidated picture of the characters and their dramas, they retorted, “You said it had to be 2/5/10 pages, and that’s all I can fit.” Which is fair if you’re 15, and this is your first story, and you’re only here because your mom forgot to sign the permission slip for the band trip. But despite short stories’ well-earned reputation for inconclusive endings, your ending should still have a bit of that, “I see” sort of feeling, even if you get it three days later. Short story endings, as a rule, don’t shut anything down or solve any problems; they open things up to the next page, the page that isn’t there. Amy explains very well: “it’s always a bit of a shock to end a short story, as a reader or a writer, but then you carry that shock with you for the rest of the day. you feel restless, unquieted, maybe even a little angry. you’re fucking confused! and you don’t want to admit it, but that’s kind of the best feeling in the world.”

Many readers offer short-story writers the compliment of “It ended too soon–I wanted to know what happened next!” To a certain extent, that’s a wonderful compliment–well, speaking only for myself, I love to think I could create a world people would want to continue to live in, and characters they’d like to continue to know. However, there should be something basically satisfying and self-contained about a short story–you should receive enough knowledge, emotion, action, whatever the story requires, that when it ends, some part of you is like, “Yeah. I see…” and what you see is your own version of the next page. It takes work to craft that page for yourself–maybe this is what some people hate about stories–but the writer should have given you the basic tools to do so.  It is difficult to explain the difference between the ending-feeling you get with a crafted short story, and the feeling you get when the writer has just run out of space or steam and dropped in “The End” instead of writing the next bit. But trust me, there’s a big difference.

There’s this great Robert Coover story that I just read that elides almost everything that actually happens–the skips are bigger than the hits, and the story itself is tiny, just over 1000 words (what, you never cut’n’paste a story into a word processor to see how long it is?) And yet it packs a huge wallop; the elisions are the story, in a certain sense; but the fact that they are elided for both the reader and the character are the story, too. So you care at the end, about this man whose life you don’t really know, because he doesn’t know, either. Now, in my mind, that’s a good ending.

Short stories don’t do stunts or party tricks. I occasionally find (sometimes in my own work) things stuck in stories that are really cool, either stylistically (unusual narrative voices or perspectives, time fragmentation, kooky narrative structures, etc.) or content-wise (alien invasions, gender-bending, political or media satires) but don’t belong there. Not that I’m saying there could never be stories with the above, even all in the same story, but there’d have to be a bloody good reason for it. What makes a story not a story is when it contains a string of effects that don’t have anything to do with what the story *is*–the writer is just thrilled to be able to do this stuff, and is, essentially, showing off. FYI, this is why my flying baby story never worked out, but I think if I could integrate that baby more fully into the narrative, it still could.

The very wise Kim Jernigan says that stories are “research & development branch of contemporary fiction, where much of the stylistic and narrative experiment occurs” and I heartily agree. However, a successful experiment has to become one with the story, so that you can’t imagine anyone ever writing or reading that story without it. A true innovation is one that renders itself, in the moment of its creation, indispensible.

Like, for example, Matthew J. Trafford wrote this story, “Gutted,” that is about adolescent turmoil, about father-son relationships, about sexuality and “otherness” and violence. It’s a really wrenching story, one that leaves you exactly “gutted” when you finish reading it, and for that it is brilliant. The things I was thinking when I finished reading it were, “I really feel for those people” and “I wonder what they did next.” The thing I was *not* thinking was, “Hey, mermaid story–neat-o!” though in fact there is a mermaid in the story. There’s nothing wrong with “neat-o” but it doesn’t bear rereading, rethinking, mulling over in the shower. Trafford’s story transcends “neat-o” by doing a thousand other things right and writing the mermaid in so finely and subtly I seriously don’t think the story would have been possible in any other guise.

I’d say the same thing about Spencer Gordon’s short story, “Transcript: The Appeal of the Sentence, a story that’s a single, nearly 3000-word sentence about the speaker’s crush on Miley Cyrus. It’s a terrifying story, and terrifyingly good, because the interrogation of language and celebrity obsession, and the modern “It’s not what you’re like, it’s what you like.” ethos, plus this one guy’s personal and very sweet lunacy doesn’t seem doable in any other way other than the way Gordon did it.

I guess what it boils down to for me is, it works if it works. There are stories I love that break every rule above, but that’s because they aren’t rules–they’re really just observations of what I’ve seen working really well in a lot of stories. I’d love to hear/read other people’s observations, if they should like to share them…

3 Responses to “What is a short story?”

  • Melissa says:

    I’m so glad you mentioned De Maupassant! I totally stole an anthology of his short stories from the library in grade 8 and still think about a story (the reason I pilfered the book…) about a man who calls his wife his little chicken until karma kicks him in the teeth.


  • Scott Watson says:

    This is a lot to wrap my head around, which is the sign of a good blog post. I did have one question that might help (well me anyways), do you have examples of a story that used a mermaid where only a mermaid would work (is not a stunt) and one where a mermaid was not necessary (is a party trick)? I use mermaid in a Hitchcock way as it “the object of the story” and am not specifically require short stories of aquatic people (nothing against Aquaman)


  • Rebecca says:

    Hey Scott,

    That’s a good question–I am much more likely to focus on the good than the bad, and I tend to forget the titles of stories that do not work very well. I will try to think of a superflous mermaid story to recommend to you soon!

    And Melissa, under conditions of extreme book love, a little theft sometimes doesn’t count… I think de Maupassant is extraordinary enough to excuse the act…this once!


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