It’s Short Story Time!

I have been looking forward to writing short stories since I selected my origin piece for this semester. I love short stories and admire the brevity with which master short story authors can convey deep, impactful, or memorable and quirky stories. I personally struggle with excessive verbosity in my writing, and wanted a personal challenge in the art of brevity.

Short stories – are exactly what they are in the name. It has a narrative plot and a fully developed theme, but is more compact, taking up less pages and length. Every sentence and every word matters in the construction of the plot and dramatic development. Even though they are short and meant to be read in one sitting, they are still narratively complete and satifying.

I did some research and thinking into what makes a good short story. (Read: I got to revisit my favorite anthologies for “academic purposes”, not procrastination!). Here’s a short list of what I think might make for a wonderful short story:

  1. Less is more – Leaving certain things unsaid not only debloats the narrative, it leaves room for the reader’s imagination to add layers onto your story.
  2. Jump straight in – Ain’t nobody got time for two chapters of backstory! Dive headfirst into the problem scenario and go from there!
  3. Let your characters slowly reveal themselves – I think this is a powerful tool in keeping things intriguing and suspenseful.
  4. Dialogue brings life! – Dialogue moves the plot quickly and also reveals tons about characters and their relationships. Just like 1., less is more!
  5. Who needs happy endings? – Perhaps this is just my unpopular opinion, but I think some of the coolest short stories I have ever read had the most unsettling endings. It also takes too much space to tie everything up with a nice and neat little bow, in my probably very biased opinion.
  6. Theme, Theme, Theme – oh, so important for keeping the story focused! A theme provides a line of underlying logic to the story that keeps everything cohesive.

Here are some texts I used to guide my explorations:

The Way Up to Heaven – Roald Dahl

This has to be one of my favorite short stories of all time. I love how Dahl is able to build such a story and character setting so nuanced and personal, it feels like you intimately know the characters and their relationship. My absolutely favorite part is the last paragraph of this piece. I really admire how Dahl, with one sentence, was able to take an entire, seemingly harmless story, and cast everything in a really dark light. This is the kind of ending I aspire towards in my story. Some classify this story as “horror fiction”, but I think it is just a very cleverly crafted short story with a dark ending. I think Dahl’s use of symbols in this text are also very interesting, and I might like to model that in how I use the shoes as symbols in my own story.

The Desire For Elsewhere – Agnes Chew

Technically, this book is not a short story piece. It is actually a piece of creative non-fiction but I thought the way the text is structured would make it a useful model for aspects of my story. Chew uses little travel artefacts such as boarding passes, Polaroid photographs and little souvenirs as launching points for recounting her travel experiences and sharing her ruminations on life. She organizes all of these artefacts in an imagined museum of the mind. I felt this was very relevant to how I want to tell my story because I also want to create a kind of mental environment that needs navigation, with the shoes as artefacts as launching points to relate to personal narratives and flashbacks of the protagonist.

The Truth Is A Cave in the Black Mountains – Neil Gaiman

This is another short story I really love. I find that it’s actually rather long for a short story, but hey, it’s Neil Gaiman’s writing so I’m not complaining. I find the use of dialogue in this short story extremely compelling. It keeps the story constantly moving, and reveals a lot about the characters in very subtle ways. I also find it fascinating how Gaiman is able to conceal so much about the narrator from the reader, and so carefully drops one clue at a time until the whole premise of the narrator’s motives are revealed. The chilling circularity of the events described in the story is so well-crafted, and I love the use of memory in this piece. I really hope to be able to model that in my own work.

Short stories are far from easy to write. You need to balance the need to describe vividly with the need for brevity. It is a tough exercise in judging artistic salience in your own work. But I also feel that the brevity forces you to make tough choices such that every single word in your narrative counts for something. Every word is a crown jewel in your narrative. And I think that is a beautiful concept.

One thought to “It’s Short Story Time!”

  1. I definitely agree with the guidelines you laid out! Brevity is a huge feature of the short story (hence the name), and it actually (positively) forces you to create a very centralised focus. That really ties in with the importance of developing a theme that you mentioned, coupled with also ensuring that you go straight to the point with developing the story. With these short stories, this is where decision making in choosing which sentences to include is vital.

    I am also doing a short story-focused experiment, and never noticed the huge factor that dialogue has in this genre! I definitely agree that dialogue is needed to subtly develop the character, and think that really connect well with the slow, piece-by-piece character development. This provides an interesting perspective-taking experience from that character’s mouth to the scene and brings realism & visualisation through imagining the conversation and their voices.

    I think it’s also very interesting how in short stories that you have to both try to go straight to the point, but also be vague enough to not give away too much information at once, allowing the reader to paint the story themselves. I think this is probably one of the more difficult aspects of the short story format. Definitely experiment with that, and think in the reader’s perspective of how they’re unravelling and exploring the plot!

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