“A good short story is almost always about a moment of profound realisation. Or a hint of that. A quiet bomb.”
Recently, I’ve been reading The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40. About a couple months ago I realized I had a problem: I had a hard time sitting down and just reading a novel – any novel. I tried classics, modern lit of all genres, YA, but nothing seemed to hold my attention. Nothing captured me and drew me in to a world of gripping vitality. Simply put, I couldn’t concentrate on anything long enough to get through more than ten-fifteen pages. For me this is rare – and troubling. I inhale books. I read them in one sitting if I can, 300, 400 pages – no problem if I have a spare weekend. But it wasn’t happening, and it made me feel disconnected.
Finally, I decided to change tactics. I went to the short-story section of the local B&N and picked out a couple of options, one being The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40. And, it worked. Novels are complicated, drawn-out stories. They can be intense at parts, drawn out at parts, morbid at parts, thrilling at parts, etc. But they are created of PARTS. And, while many of the parts may be wonderful and well-written and captivating, there are still several pieces that fit together, and you usually want or need to have all the pieces to truly grasp and end the novel.
Short stories aren’t quite like that. I could sit down and read 150 pages of short stories because they came at me in short spurts of plots and emotions. I didn’t have to hang on to and grasp an entire complicated plot and cast of characters. Everything kept changing every 15-20 pages. (Perfect for those with ADD, I might add.) Still, I was experiencing different lives and places and thought processes.
Short stories usually fall into one of two categories, but with a common core.
1) A story that is one piece that could essentially fit into a larger story. However, the tone and theme of its writing allows it to stand alone, and by standing alone, the story becomes more intense. This story may not be neatly wrapped up at the end, having frayed edges that dangle here and there. Questions are left unanswered, enhancing the tone and feelings of the story. While there may be some closure, essentially the end is left open to different possibilities, as if awaiting a sequel that will never be written. This type of short story can essentially be likened to a 1 season show or a season finale. Who is left dead/married/drugged/moved? But, while you want these answers, you don’t really need them. The short story packed enough emotion and tension in it for a resolve, just not a concrete denouement. This type usually focuses on building tension and emotion through specifically chosen language: repetition, intensely figurative and emotional language, often first person accounts with a dialogue tone that matches the characters frame-of-mind. The story is gained through bits and pieces, but there is not necessarily a big BANG moment of action. It is also highly psychological in nature, pulling and driving the story more from thought than intense action. For an example, think “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
2) The second type is one that is more solidly a complete story. You don’t question what happens next. You have a complete ending (more or less). These stories usually focus on the ending of something that can give you a conclusion (as in The Cask of Amontillado), or it can briefly give a full-length but less detailed tale (as in A Rose for Emily). In the case of “The Cask…” the plot ends in a murder which the entire story had been building up to. However, the reader was never fully informed of the reasons behind the murder, just that vengeance was required. In “A Rose…” the reader is told briefly of the life span of Emily, from her father rearing her to her loneliness and her lovers. However, at the end there is final “Aha” moment when the body of Emily and later Homer were discovered. In these stories, while aspects of psychology are involved as they drive the action, the focus is on the action. In these cases, the actions were murder. I liken this type of short story to a complete series or a series finale. There is a definite end.
However, what unites both of these types of short stories is their singular focus and tone. In all three of the above examples, the tone remains fairly consistent (with a short bursts of intensity here and there to drive the focus) with a singular focus. In both cases everything led to the end. The authors basically started as they finished, bringing the story full round. “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.” ―Lorrie Moore
Now, compare it to a novel like Gone with the Wind or Jane Eyre. These books possess many parts, each part carrying a different tone. In Gone with the Wind, each part of her life (pre-marriage, marriage 1, marriage 2, marriage 3,etc ) carried a different focus and tone. Even though she was always chasing Ashley, the tone wasn’t always jealousy or rage or ambition. There were happy moments, scared moments, inspirational and educational moments. The same can be said of Jane Eyre, Little Women, Atlas Shrugged.* Short stories can be complicated or simple in their themes and philosophies and psycholgies, but whether it is mind-driven or action-driven, there is a single “bomb” that makes the story.
Your quote to think about for next week is this: “For the source of the short story is usually lyrical. And all writers speak from, and speak to, emotions eternally the same in all of us: love, pity, terror do not show favorites or leave any of us out.”
― Eudora Welty
*Essentially, the closest novels to short stories that I have come across are all written by Dostoevsky, but even most of them are filled with “parts.”