Our third Wednesday Guest, Susan Malone, is here today with an interesting look at the short story form.
Because they are different art forms. Yes, both require wonderful prose, well-drawn characters, and a storyline that takes off from jump and keeps the reader’s interest until THE END appears. Sounds pretty similar so far. But where most writers get tripped up is in thinking that a short story is just a shorter form of fiction than a novel. And therein lies the rub. Because short fiction is its own beast, rather than a condensed full-length work, and what makes it a short story goes to the heart of our matter.
Similarities do exist between short stories and chapters or scenes in novels. The structure of each, while not exactly the same, follows the same pattern. We have scene setting, conflict rising, that conflict coming to a climax, then a period of denouement and resolution. But in a novel, the drawing to a close of one scene or chapter sets up the next one. And many times, the denouement and resolution don’t even come in until later in the book (although they do have to come together!).
You don’t get this luxury in a short piece. While, as in a novel, we have to have a beginning, middle, and end, the short story must have a point to it all on its own. That point must be completely encapsulated in the scope of this one story. That seems to go without saying, but from the writer’s side of the desk, it gets murky in the mind. Even if you’re writing a series of short pieces based on one theme, or one set of characters, each story has to stand entirely on its own—as if that’s all your reader will ever see.
A novel is often a slice of life. One can even argue that Lonesome Dove in all its length was just one slice of life—Gus and Call at their best—and McMurtry wrote oh, Lord, I forget how many prequels and sequels to it! Short fiction is also a slice of life, and it, too, must expose a bigger theme, speak to something universal, touch us with understanding. Not only do you have very little time to get this done, but the feel of it is different, too, in that what is often most important is exactly that—the feel of it. And that has to stay consistent throughout.
At the crux of the issue is that raison de’ etre of a short story has to be powerful. The story’s moments (of which novels must be filled as well) must be front and center and occur often. While every word of a novel counts, in short fiction, each of those words count so much more. And in the end, in a few amount of words, you must have left the reader with an ah-ha epiphany, one stunning second, where she feels what you are conveying through your characters and storyline. Even if she can’t put into words exactly what the story was about, she knows it in her heart.
And then you know you’ve written something beautiful.
Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has four traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at: www.maloneeditorial.com
Posted by Maryann Miller, who loves to read a good short story that touches her heart.