As I may have mentioned, one my parents taught English literature. I picked up a love of reading that grew to a love of writing. I learned a lot about English literature through osmosis and direct teaching from my parent. Heck, by the time I was eleven years old, I was allowed to grade freshmen English papers. Don’t worry; my parent always checked my work but usually my grade stood. Anyway, I learned that at least to critics, the length of a written work matters a great deal, especially in how it’s judged. Now, the term “short story” is a pretty nebulous term. For the purposes of my parent’s area of literature, a short story was generally considered about 10 pages, although generally anything between 5 and 20 pages is a more generally accepted length. Stories under 1000 words are often called “flash fiction.” Actually, the stories I write for the online magazine are flash fiction by that definition (fewer than 600 words).
My parent contended that writing a good short story was actually much more difficult than writing a good novel because of the length constraints. Every story has the same elements – characters, setting, plot (and the plot has the build-up, the climax, and the denouement). Trying to introduce characters, describe a setting, then set up the action, hit the climax, and then wind up the story in about 10 pages is a pretty tall order. Many short stories don’t really explain everything leaving it to the reader to fill in the gaps. I think in some ways that makes short stories more interesting than novels.
For example, in Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Cask of Amontillado,” the first-person narrator, whose name we don’t learn, is on a vendetta against Fortunato but the reader never finds out the specific reason the narrator hates this character so much. The narrator says Fortunato insulted him but never says why. We have no idea what the relationship really is between the narrator and Fortunato, although as the narrator meets up with Fortunato s/he explains some of the character of Fortunato but always refers to Fortunato as “my friend.” Throughout the story, the narrator acts like Fortunato’s friend as s/he lures Fortunato to his ultimate fate. So what in the world happened between these two people? Maybe Fortunato stole a large amount of money from the narrator. Maybe Fortunato chased away the narrator’s potential love interest. Maybe Fortunato told the world some humiliating lie about the narrator. Of course, that Fortunato didn’t seem to realize exactly how much the narrator hated him indicates perhaps the narrator’s perception of the insult was overblown, and maybe the narrator is just a psychopath. In the end, after vengeance has been done, the reader is left to wonder if Fortunato deserved his fate.
Not everyone can be quite as talented as Poe (I am not claiming to be). Bad short stories just leave the reader wondering what the heck just happened and not in a good way. There should be enough detail and context that the story is coherent. And of course, there are ways to cheat. Writers really are very cheaty people, even cheatier than gamemasters. So a way to add more detail and context and backstory in a short story is to write a series of short stories featuring the same character. Arthur Conan Doyle did write a couple of novels about Sherlock Holmes, true, but even just reading through the stories published in “The Strand” give a reader a lot of insight on Holmes and Watson that just one story doesn’t reveal. However, one story is enough to show Holmes’ genius and Watson’s devotion. The stories don’t necessarily have to be serial, either. Some Holmes’ stories took place when he and Watson were swingin’ bachelors. Some took place after Watson moved out and to his own medical practice. Some took place after Watson had moved out but he described a story that took place when they were still living together.
A short story can be easier than longer works because it is shorter. There are a whole lot of details that just aren’t necessary to the core of the story. There’s also a lot of consequences that don’t come into the story either. In the example of “The Cask of Amontillado,” the readers never find out what happened to the narrator after s/he took vengeance on Fortunato. It might be an interesting story in and of itself, but it’s not relevant to the original story. I think short stories, more than longer stories, have to rely on tropes. There’s just not enough space to try to go into detail about the characters and motivations. Short stories also benefit from the use of name-dropping. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” Poe gave Fortunato a meaningful (if ironic) and Italian sounding name so a reader would assume the story was set in Italy. Poe didn’t have to waste words telling the reader the setting was Italy. Poe did not describe carnival season; he assumed his readers would know what carnival season referred to and how people generally acted. Just using the phrase “carnival season” explains a lot about how Fortunato was acting (drunk) and how the narrator was able to lure him to his fate.
On balance, I think I can work with either, depending on my particular inspiration at the time. I think stand-alone short stories are perhaps more difficult than full-length novels, but a series of short stories with the same characters can be a little easier. I also like with serial short stories I don’t have to explain how the characters get from story A to B to C. They don’t have to be that connected. Of course, anything long or serial requires copious notes, which I’m a bit bad at.
As I cheaty writer, I tried to have the best of both worlds. I have a full-length novel and a collection of related short stories. Both were hard to write, but in different ways. Right now I’m on a short story kick, and am working on a new collection to publish around Halloween. I also play with the length a little bit and go over the 10 page guideline. But who knows? My Muse, who is quite fickle, may inspire me to return to the full-length novel format. For now, though, I’m trying to keep my stories short.
Also, shameless promo from Necromancy for the Greater Good:
“Cleveland. Why are we here again?” Nora asked.
“Because Cleveland rocks,” Leah said.
“I’m pretty sure that’s objectively not true.”