In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Painful as it is for me to make this confession, the reason that I don’t (or very rarely) write short stories because (in general) I lack the intense, tightly-focused imagination needed to write a good one.
The question now arises: what are the attributes of a good short story?
Opinions here will differ, depending on who is addressing the question. A writer of Literary Fiction (who has read and admired the works of Raymond Carver) will contend that a good short story is one which evokes the cultural ambiance in which the writer is writing. By this standard of measurement, the excellence of a particular work depends not on plot or character development, but on the writer’s use of language and imagery to generate mood and atmosphere.
By contrast, writers of genre fiction (mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy) devote the lion’s share of their attention to plot and character development (elements which don’t particularly interest Literary Fiction pundits). By these standards of measurement, the primary virtue of a good short story is a compact, tightly-orchestrated sequence of events, enriched with dramatic irony and governed by an underlying pattern of cause and effect.
Of course the best short stories – classics like O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi or Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber or Bret Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat – provide readers with the whole package. The critical issue has to do with the question of scale – the difference (if you like) between painting a mural and painting a miniature. You’re using all the same elements of your chosen medium. But in the case of the smaller work, you have to use those elements with the precision of a diamond-cutter to produce a real gem.
In writing short stories, the modus operandi is to cultivate a Spartan attitude when it comes to detailing. More specifically:
1) When describing people, places, etc., retain only the very best of your descriptive passages. (Relegate merely “pretty good” descriptive elements to a reserve file on your computer.)
2) Dismiss any and all non-essential characters. (Even a walk-on can become a distraction.)
3) Keep your plot on a strict diet of necessity. (Don’t allow yourself to indulge in any plot speculations - however intriguing - that may weigh the story down with non-essential complications.)
4) Look for opportunities to take short cuts when it comes to advancing significant plot and/or character developments. (Do we really need to know how Leyla spends her time when she’s not with either Demon-Ted or Angel-Jim?)
If you have the self-discipline as a writer to keep your short story under tight control and still produce a piece with all the ingredients necessary to provide a good read, you have my sincere and unfeigned compliments
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.