Short stories to wrestle with

Summer in the park in London. Image source: IWOM We know no limits

Image source: IWOM We know no limits (London)

“The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.” – John Steinbeck


Juni Desiree (Awrestlingwriter) is a prolific blogger I happily stumbled into this year. This week she kindly shared with us the link to one of her short stories, ‘Summer’, published in The Australia Times.

I loved it! Laughed. Nearly cried. Finished it feeling warm and fuzzy and re-balanced. Which is just what a short story should do.

And it is seriously short (700 words), which makes it a solid example of one particular structure for short fiction – the “whole narrative” told briefly – for young writers who are just starting out to follow.

Last month I was editing a short story for someone, and this month I’ll be writing a book review of one (I’ll post the link when it’s up), and so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the various purposes of short stories in general, and whether or not these and other stories have achieved those purposes.

Reading short stories is something I’ve secretly avoided since finishing uni. After writing three short stories a semester as an avid novel-writer and self-proclaimed short fiction-hater, I’d had enough. Plus, I’d been burned by a bunch of short stories written by enthusiastic but voyeuristic students who thought that five pages of drugs, violence and gratuitous sex made for a great story.

But you can’t stay away forever. Short fiction is probably the easiest way to get better at writing quickly. After all, you’ve written something, and it wasn’t very long – so you take your feedback and move on to the next one! You can write a novel a month if you can write all day and forget about having a social life, or you can write a short story a week and still see friends and work full-time. It’s an easy choice, if you can handle restricting your grand ideas to a vignette, a snippet of time in one character’s life.

Short stories can have any one of a bunch of purposes:

  • To excite some sort of emotional response from the reader – laughter, shock, tears, groans, disgust, etc.
    • The short stories above that I mentioned (with gratuitous violence, etc.) cater to this purpose, eliciting horror or squirming.
    • Scott Fitzgerald said all you need to write a short story is to find the one key emotion for that story.
    • Edgar Allan Poe is famous for saying that every short story must have only one mood, which every sentence is building more and more. (Think of the dread that grows steadily throughout The Telltale Heart.)
  • To observe a change, either in the main character, or in their response to their environment or their society.
    • Traditionalists like me will appreciate or enjoy stories with this purpose more easily.
    • In Juni’s story, the character meets a special someone and changes from a 9 to 5 manager focused on his job, to a more relaxed man who is able to enjoy the simple joys in life around about his work. There’s more to the story than that, but you’ll just have to read it and see. J
    • Even in famous short stories where nothing seems to change, the main characters still have a turning point where they make a choice that continues their status quo. Think Weekend by Ann Beattie, where the quiet housewife knows of her husband’s ongoing infidelity but makes the choice to stay with him, or The Bystander by Gina Berriault, in which a young man whose father is in a mental asylum realises that his father will never return to him as the strong man he knew as a child, and he must accept that.
  • To tell a whole narrative briefly, or to try out the main plot point in a novel and see whether or not it will work for readers.
    • Orson Scott Card does this a lot. Many of his short science fiction pieces were “trials” of different ideas or turning points for characters who later ended up in his books, in one form or another, recognisable or not.
    • Haruki Murakami says his short stories would shake him in the middle of the night, shouting that they demanded to be rewritten as full-length novels.
  • To unpack an aspect of the human condition.
    • “That the reader shall come away with the satisfactory feeling that a particular insight into human character has been gained, or that [their] knowledge of life has been deepened,” said Lin Yutang, the man who established Lunyu banyuekan in 1932. (This was Analects Fortnightly, China’s first Western-style satirical magazine.)
    • Zadie Smith says, “When things are not always having to represent other things, you find real human beings begin to cautiously appear on your pages.”
    • Alice Munro said simply, “I want my stories to be something about life that causes people to say, not, oh, isn’t that the truth … Everything the story tells moves the reader in such a way that you feel you are a different person when you finish.”
  • To learn to write better, e.g. to radically experiment with writing style in a way that may not be accepted in a longer novel.
    • George R.R. Martin said he meets too many young fantasy writers who try to dive right in by writing a trilogy of novels, or even (because this is fantasy, after all) a nine-book series. “That’s like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest. Short stories help you learn your craft.”
    • Even Truman Capote credited his talent to beginning with short stories: “Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium.”
  • To describe or paint a picture, to write a vignette scene of a character, without any need for action or change. (I argue that this is already contained within the purpose of eliciting an emotional response, whether that is interest, discomfort, or a feeling of tranquility, but it’s still a valid purpose.)
    • Raymond Carver, master of the short story, said, “It’s possible, in a poem or short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power.”
Image source: The Book Garden

Image source: The Book Garden

If you’ve got kids, check out Once Upon An Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers, an adorable collection of 26 short stories – one for every letter of the alphabet!

And to read more fabulous quotes from famous authors about the art of crafting short stories, drop by Aerogramme Studios, to whom we are obligated for putting so many of them in one place for our easy reading.

Read any good short stories lately? If you’ve written some short stories and they’re floating out there on the web, post the link here so we can read them, too!


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

5 thoughts on “Short stories to wrestle with

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