Friday, October 7, 2011

The Craft of the Short Story

I am extremely fond of writing short stories. I have written around 60 and practically all of them have been published. I hope to write many  more. Short story was the starting point for my writing career. My editor told me something very sweet about a short story; it’s a novel waiting to grow up. Not always, I said. Many times a short story is just a short story, but, sometimes inside each short story lurks a novel, waiting to emerge.

My Blog Buddy Mark Noce asked me “My big question for you is how to write a short-story without it morphing into a novel. This often happens to me.

To answer Mark’s question, I would have to say that a short story is just a very thin slice of someone’s life, a beam of moonlight, a brief interlude. Its just one tiny incident that has happened in the main character’s life, while the novel is a series of incidents.

Unlike novels, short stories do not have the advantage of a long drawn courtship with the readers. There is no serenading the readers over several chapters. The attraction is Instant. Or, there is no attraction at all. It’s a Do or Die situation.    
             
One person stories are extremely powerful, and if its in  the first person narrative, then, all the more better. This kind of narrative creates a sense of deep intimacy, the reader gets a close peek into the protagonist’s soul and life.

One of the main features of a short story is that it has just 1 or 2 main characters, too many characters vying for space in a short story spoil the effect; its then like a party where no one has enjoyed the atmosphere. The movement of the characters is severely restricted. The writer is unable to do justice to any of the characters. A crowded characterization is acceptable if it’s a party, or a classroom scene, then, these extras lurk outside the fringes of the story, never interfering with either the protagonist, or, the  movement of the story. Surplus characters slow down the pace of the story.  

The best feature of the short story is its indifference to cramming details about the characters, situations and events. For a short story, it’s like one is packing for a brief holiday: only the basic necessities that we just can’t do without are added to the suitcase.  It’s different from a novel, where one is literally shifting house: bag and baggage.

The reins of the plot of the story are held tight, the writer is aware of each and every breath the story is taking. The breathing is even and measured: no long drawn sighs, or, gasping for breath. The journey of the short story is similar to a ride in which there is no halting, or, loitering around, or, even taking a little rest.  It’s more like a 100 metres dash. Start to finish.

Short stories with ironic and trick endings like ‘The  Necklace’ by Guy Du Maupassant  will seldom be forgotten. The psychological short story popularized by Anton Chekhov has become memorable. The settings in many of his stories is in the minds of his characters, the dialogues are a steady stream of internal monologues. A short  story that has  lingered in many minds  for a long time is ‘The Gift of the Magi’ by O’ Henry. This heart wrenching story is recollected every Christmas.

Short stories that work best have a Twist in the Tales. They certainly grab a reader’s attention. It requires an adept story teller to provide the end that takes the reader completely by surprise. This twist in the tale must stem from either the character, or, the story.

Short stories make the tendency to tie up every loose end redundant. This is its biggest plus point. Few things can be left unsaid, few questions unanswered. A short story is just one scene from the main character’s life; a scene complete with a MC, Conflict and a Resolution. Most short stories start with a conflict, which is then quickly resolved. In a short story you need to start at the climax; think of a person in a setting.

Life Unordinary asked me what is the ideal length of a short story. The ideal length is  400 words for Flash Fiction and 500 words to 800 words for a picture book, 1000 words is appropriate for children’s stories, 2500 to 3500 words is the word count for most competition entries for adult short stories and also for older children. Some writers have gone on to write short stories of 10,000 words.

PS: Just wanted to share with you all the good news that my short story ‘Ganesha’s Blanket of Stars’ won a Special Mention (Prize) in the Unisun Reliance Timeout Competition. Next year I have been asked to judge the competition. I am quite excited about it.
          

21 comments:

Rahul said...

A very meaningful and helpful insight!Thanks Rachna

Langa Tenzin said...

Wonderful and of course a very helpful article. Thanks for sharing all of this ma'am. I am glad to know that you have been asked to judge the competition next year-a deserved honour indeed! Keep helping us. :)

Mark Noce said...

Wow, so glad you posted about this! Your metaphors here are great:) Thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions in such a great post!

SBJones said...

Congratulations on the prize for your short story. I have 5 short stories planned out as a companion set for my second novel. I haven't written anything from a first person point of view. I might have to do that with the first one. "Girl in the Clockwork Dress."

Melissa Crytzer Fry said...

Maybe this "do or die" pressure is why I stay away from short stories? :-) The notion that writers should publish short stories as a path to novel publication has always baffled me - because of the very BIG differences you mention between the two forms. Novels and short stories ARE two different animals, and require different skill sets, so my approach - rightly or wrongly - has been to focus on the longer-length fiction since that is my ultimate goal... not to be a short story writer. I see the benefit in being able to write, but I think they require different strengths and equal amounts practice. But I DO admire anyone who can write short stories... SO hard to do so much in such a short space. So admirable.

Rachna Chhabria said...

@ Rahul...thanks. Glad it was of some use to you.

@ Langa...thanks for your sweet words. It is indeed an honour to be asked to judge the competition.

@ Mark..I hope I was of some help to you where the art of short stories is concerned. Hope you will write one soon.

@ SBJones...your short story 'Girl in the Clockwork Dress' sounds intriguing. First person point of view will be a good idea for that particular story.

@ Melissa...not all writers take the short story route to publication. Short story collections are a hard-sell, unless the writer has been asked to contribute in an anthology. Yes..short stories requires a approach different from that of a novel.

Angela Felsted said...

I am excited for you. That is a HUGE accomplishment. I have only ever written one short story and it was in third person. But I thought it was good for the story I told, not that it will win any prizes.

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Congratulations,Rachna! I have to admit that at first, short stories are difficult coming from a novelist. I tend to develop it too deeply and then my wordcount is up. *sigh*

Thanks for the tips!



♥.•*¨Elizabeth¨*•.♥

Lydia Kang said...

Someday I have to try again. My first short story about 5 years ago was terrible!

The Golden Eagle said...

I have trouble keeping my stories short as well, though I do enjoy writing them.

Thanks for the post!

Congratulations on your short story! :)

Robyn Campbell said...

Congrads Rachna!!!!!!!! Excellent! I write picture books so tight writing is no problem for me. I am so happy for you, girlfriend. :-)

cherie said...

Congrats, Rachna!!!

I love this post! I have a soft spot for short stories, and most people don't realize how different they are from book-length novels (aside from the length, of course). Short stories are like little gems you pick up and enjoy in its entirety right away, esp. when you don't have time to read 300-page or more books.

Sonam Norbu said...

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Dave King said...

A really fascinating write. Thank you for it.

Karen Lange said...

I like your definition of a short story. Congrats on having so many published!

Kenda Turner said...

Great discussion on the short story, Rachna! Lots of good information here :-) And your record of publication is inspiring. You mentioned my all time favorite short-story, too--O Henry's Gift of the Magi. It has lasting power, doesn't it?

Julia Hones said...

Very interesting post, Rachna. It resonates with me because I normally write short stories, but the last idea that came to me is pushing me towards a novel. (In other words, I think it should be a novel instead of a short story and I am still debating this in my mind). By the way, I love Chekhov's style.

Anu said...

Hi Rachna....Missed your blog badly...Reading short stories makes me feel good, as I don't have to wait long for climax. Very interesting and useful post!

alexia said...

Great post! And congrats on your award and getting to judge next year!!!

Lynda R Young said...

How fantastic to get a special mention for your short story and even more fatnastic to be called as a judge. Congrats!

Genie @ Healthy Living Now said...

I love short stories, but they have to start off really good for me to continue reading. It is absolutely a “do or die situation” Either it is delivering or it is not.

As you say, “For a short story, it’s like one is packing for a brief holiday: only the basic necessities that we just can’t do without are added to the suitcase.” This is the reason a short story should be at its best; only the important parts are added.

Thanks for sharing!