I'm far away from home and my typical writing routine, staying here in Moscow to take care of my mom after she had a heart attack and a stroke, so it feels very weird to attempt to wrestle my brain into writing about writing, but I shall. And the topic this time is something that Stone Crowns Magazine asked me to dish on, namely, how writing short stories is a valid art form and not just something to practice your hand at while prepping to write a novel. I've only written one short story so far, Cube, and it was done as on request of one of my readers and bloggers, so I banged it out in a couple hours (it could've been much better), but I believe that a short story is separate from a novel, it's its own beast, with its own rules, and it can even take you longer to write than a novel. I'll start with a quote from Alice Munro who recently has won the Nobel Prize in Literature as a "master of the contemporary short story" (I have yet to read her stories), and then will go into what I feel about writing short stories that makes them unique, as I do not have enough experience to write what I know.
"I really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art ... not just something that you played around with until you got a novel written."
― Alice Munro
Every story needs 8 elements. This is something I picked up from Chuck Palahniuk, namely, from one of his readings, when he read aloud his short story Romance. He said that he is going to a writer's group, has been going for years, and that someone (I don't remember who exactly) told him, either in his writer's group or just another writer, that every story needs 8 elements, and that it is very much applicable to a short story as well as a novel. Here they are:
- A clock.
- A birth.
- A death.
- 3 elements that repeat, and those 3 elements need to start on page 1.
- Make the reader smarter than you.
- Make the reader laugh.
- Make the reader cry.
- Make the reader sick.
He also said that every story needs to be written for therapy and read aloud. Therapy is important because you don't know if anyone will ever read it, and you want to have a payback from writing. Reading it aloud helps you see where you stumble, and that's where the story needs to be cleaned up. These two last things aside, think about it. If you can, read Romance by Chuck Palahniuk and then see how this principle applies. The clock is a must. In real life the time is always ticking, always bringing us to the end of our lives, and living while we have this time is all that matters to us. Stories with a clock matter, they make our hearts race, they feel real. The birth and the death... they don't have to be literal, but it's great if they are, because it's what happens in life all the time, somebody is born, somebody dies, and it has a significant impact on us. The 3 elements can really be any number of elements, thematically, but we tend to be overwhelmed if too much if communicated to us, and it doesn't grab us if there is too little, so 3 seems like the perfect number. Those elements can be anything. In my short story it's "getting lost", "curiosity", "breaking rules". They could be better, but that's what they are. To compare, in my trilogy SIREN SUICIDES, there are also 3 main elements, but they are bigger, since the story is bigger, and they are "suicide", "abuse", "finding your voice". Next come the difficult parts, you have to make the reader feel smarter than you, make them laugh and cry and feel sick. These are all very powerful emotions, and this is why we read, to experience emotions. If your short story doesn't have that (and it's much harder to pack all that into a short story), you've lost the reader.
In a short story there is no luxury in explaining things. In a novel form, you can hook the reader from the first page, and then slowly ease them into the ride. Stephen King is a master of that. He can stretch out suspense to 10 pages, more, keeping you on the edge of your seat, waiting for what will happen. But in a short story you don't have this luxury. It's fast, it has to give you a snippet of a larger picture, a window into a larger story, yet staying a complete story on its own merit, with a beginning, middle, and end. My favorite shorts stories are those by O. Henry and Anton Chekhov. If you haven't read them, please do, they are masterfully written. They evoke a completely different response in me as opposed to novels. They give a little glimpse into people's lives, into a certain episode of their lives, and that episode shows an incredible depth of feeling, so in a sense a short story feels like a very deep well, and, compared to it, a novel is like a vast ocean. They both hold water (story), but is has a different shape, a different entry point, a different weight, and a different takeaway. You dip into the well to get clean water, have a drink, and sigh in relief from thirst. But you plunge into the ocean with your whole body and swim for hours, relishing the feeling. At least, this is how it feels for me.
A story is a story is a story. In the end, it is unfair to treat a short story as something inferior to a novel. It isn't. It's as hard if not harder to write, in its own way, and it's as much a story as a novel is, or as a flash fiction story is. Even a quick couple-lines joke is a story, with a beginning, middle, and an end as a punch line. No matter what the length of your story is, it's a story first and foremost, and it should be treated as such. There are universal elements that are part of it, and unless we make it interesting to the readers, they will abandon it, and go elsewhere. I wish I could write here more on the craft of writing a short story. Alas, I don't know, I've only written one, although I've read a ton. But from what it feels like, a short story makes you work harder as a writer, it's unforgiving. You can't ramble on for pages about something irrelevant, there is simply no place. It makes you be a better writer, it teaches you to be more concise, and it's truly an art to be able to give your reader an emotional jolt with only a few pages as opposed to a couple hundred.
I sincerely hope this was helpful to you. It was helpful to me, actually, and it made me scared, in a way, because I want to write a bunch of short stories about my dating experiences, when I was freshly divorced and started meeting guys after being married for 15 years, which was quite an experience. I felt like a kid in a candy shop and wanted to try everything, and, boy, I did. The tone of them will be a lot like Guts by Chuck Palahniuk, so this will be the blog post I will refer to, when I'll get my courage to start on this project. When, that is, I will work up the courage.