The Short Story – a Format for our Times. by Bill Kirton

Last week, Ali Bacon covered this topic and asked ( and  answered) some penetrating questions about many of its technical aspects as well as its potential. These are just some additional musings on the form.

The best short stories can have the same intensity and levels of reader involvement as a novel or the concentrated power of a poem. Edgar Allen Poe and Maupassant packed more into theirs than other writers manage in entire novels. Bizarrely though, given that we live in times where speed is essential, sound bites are the norm and it seems that ‘we have no time to stand and stare’, lots of publishers/agents still say explicitly, ‘No short stories’. And yet, in theory at least, it ought to offer the perfect fit for commuters with their e-readers and anyone who relishes grabbing a few moments during the galloping days to relax with some fiction.

The beauty of the form is that it can be so many things, some of them just an evocation of a mood, others a complete, self-contained ‘story’ with beginning, middle and end, others still a simple memory or a dream. If they’re written with care, they don’t need to have an ending. Some very good ones simply set the scene for what readers know will be a lifetime of misery or bliss for the characters. In terms of length, my own range from 6000 to 500 words. And then there are the mini ones like those on some online sites. Perhaps the most-quoted example is that attributed (dubiously) to Hemingway, a ‘six-word novel’ which we’d now call flash fiction:

‘For Sale, Baby shoes. Never worn.’

although I have another favourite, which was definitely written by my brother Ron. It was called Lost and, in its entirety, it went:

“That ring you lost, was it your wedding ring?”
“Not really.”

That’s’ a good example of how short stories, however complete (or however short) they are, often still leave you with echoes, aspects of people and events you’d like to know more about.

As for where the ideas come from, or how I know a particular topic is a short story rather than a play or whatever, I don’t think there’s a rule. My short stories tend to come from times when I think ‘OK, I have x hours free and I want to write something so I’ll write a complete story’. There’s a satisfaction about giving yourself exclusively to a piece of writing that you know you’re going to complete – in terms of its first draft anyway – at one sitting. You may not, of course; complications may arise, new, uninvited characters may barge in. And, anyway, it won't be the finished article because you’ll be returning to edit the thing in a day or two (or longer, preferably).

An anthology, especially one which features several different authors, can offer a range of perspectives, styles and experiences which keep refreshing the reader’s curiosity and illustrating just how flexible the story form is. If you want proof, just get hold of a copy of A Flash in the Pen, Another Flash in the Pen, One More Flash in thePen, or Ghosts Electric – all anthologies from the Authors Electric team.


Umberto Tosi said…
Briefly, enlightening. Like your subject, you get right to the point. I know a short story I've written works if somebody reads it and says, "I wanted more." Thanks for another illuminating post.
Nicky said…
I agree. haven't written many shorts but I am just getting into them. Great post.

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