Friday, October 7, 2011
The Craft of the Short Story
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.