Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Craft of the Short Story

Someone told me that a short story is 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 unspool.

A short story is just a thin slice of someone’s life, a beam of moonlight, a brief interlude. 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  it’s 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.

Stuffing many characters into a short story is disastrous for its health. It resembles an overcrowded bus, a definite eyesore. 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

The writer of the short story is a master craftsman of the trade. This master craftsman knows that he/she has a short span of time not just to grab and hold the reader’s attention, to mesmerize and enthrall them, and also  resolve the main character's conflict.

 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.

Somethings are better left to the reader’s imagination !

Do you like all the loose ends tied together? Every question answered in a short story?


  1. I'm a big fan of loose ends being tied together, even in a short story, though I don't need as complete an ending as a novel demands. Sometimes even just a twist that has me wondering if I've guessed the right outcome is enough, if it makes a clever point whilst leaving me guessing a bit. But I do have to have some sense of resolution.

  2. Lia, I agree, there has to be a sense of resolution,otherwise the story falls flat on its face. But a few ends left loose leave me guessing, and I don't mind that. Actually, I quite like it that way.