“A short story is a different thing all together – a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.”
When I was younger, I loved a programme called The Storyteller. Produced by Jim Henson, it starred John Hurt as the storyteller, sitting by the fire and sharing traditional folk tales from Europe/Russia with his (talking) dog. My favourite tale from this programme was called A Story Short, based on a Celtic folk tale, in which a man is challenged by the King to tell a different short story every night for a year, otherwise he will be boiled in oil. On the very last day of the year, he finds he can’t think of a final story. Panicking, he meets a beggar who promises to tell him a story, but goes back on his word and instead turns him into a flea. By the end of the day, though, the storyteller finds that he has actually been given a story, as he recounts to the King the events that have befallen him throughout the day. The King declares it to be the best story he has ever heard.
This, to me, encompasses the notion of a short story – it has all the key components to make it just interesting enough to hold your attention, a small selection of interesting characters, a twist in the tale, and a satisfying conclusion. This tale, told via the TV programme, is in fact a story within a story within a story. The history behind the short story has its roots in these traditional folk tales and fables, which would not necessarily have been written down. From there, stories began to be recorded and read for pleasure, and the short story began to take shape. Often dark and gothic in nature by the 19th Century, the demand for short fiction began to rise with the widespread publication of newspapers and then magazines which included a section for short stories or serials, and this has continued on to today. Now, of course, the internet provides a huge outlet for every kind of fiction, and compilations of short stories and novellas are widely available in both hard copy and electronic formats. But, despite this fact, I find I don’t tend to read many short stories, and I’m not really sure why.
More often than not, I have ideas for stories that suit this shorter format. Some characters and situations are just a better fit for a short, snappy story than a longer novel. There have, however, been instances where I have tried in vain to make an idea fit into a format that never would have worked – padding out characters and scenarios to make them into a longer and more involved story. I quickly learned my lesson on this. There is no reason why a short story can’t be as good as a full novel. As King says in the quote above, they are a very different thing altogether.
I find when I’m reading or writing a short story, I become aware of how much more scope there is for the reader to use their imagination. Often, it can be more about what is not said than what is said. A short story can give you a real taste of a character or a situation, and just when you get enough good flavour on your tongue, the moment is over. The reader, then, is left to imagine what might happen next, or what might have happened in the past. All the components of a novel can be present in a short story, but such tales often begin in the middle of the action, without much of an introduction, exploring the effect of a self contained incident on a cast of very few characters. There are no additional side plots or complicated back stories to the characters, and so their motivations are often only implied, rather than explained in depth, again giving the reader the chance to use their own imagination. Descriptions of the settings and surroundings can also be similarly sparse. There is as much chance of a satisfying conclusion as there is of an abrupt ending, which gives the feeling that you have just witnessed a snapshot of the lives of these characters. A kiss in the dark from a stranger…
But, just because these stories are shorter, and don’t include some of the things the reader might expect, doesn’t mean they are any less worthy, or any easier to write. To convey enough about a character or a situation in a limited number of pages to keep the reader interested is, if anything, more difficult. There is less commitment required from a reader when picking up a short story, but still, there’s nothing worse than putting down a book, no matter what the length, and feeling like it wasn’t worth your time. So, there is a delicate balance required here to make sure the story doesn’t just fall flat. There is just as much of a risk of a story being boring whether it is short or long. A short story needs to have just enough to hook the reader’s attention, but not include too much detail, otherwise it will become cumbersome or detached from the plot.
So, I said I haven’t read many short stories – I have written a few and have ideas for more – but there are one or two well known examples that I have read and have enjoyed. They are tales that many people will have heard of but perhaps not realised that they are, in fact short stories. Stephen King has written a few excellent ones, with two of my favourites being Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and The Body, both of which have been adapted into films and are incredibly popular. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is set in a prison, a very narrow setting in which the characters are trapped, however the tale still manages to invoke suspense, drama and empathy. And then of course there are the older, gothic tales, like The Telltale Heart and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – strange goings on, ghosts, murder, guilt and madness… interesting topics that lend themselves well to shorter fiction and that can easily hook the reader, if written in the right way. These tales have continued to capture the imagination long after their publication. But although these darker themes do undoubtedly make good short stories, any topic, if written well enough, can work. Brokeback Mountain is a great drama set in a spectacular landscape, and despite the fact it is quite a short tale, the power of the love story and the desolation felt by the characters really shine through.
After thinking in depth about short stories and how good they can be, I am setting myself a challenge. I have so many ideas for short stories, mostly scribbled down on scraps of paper as the inspiration struck, which I haven’t developed, and so by the end of the year I want to have at least three of them written. As I have detailed here, that process won’t necessarily be easy. But, unlike the storyteller in the Celtic folk tale who found himself a story short, I have plenty of ideas, and it shouldn’t take the threat of being boiled in oil to get me to write them.