In a past issue of All Authors Magazine, I had a piece entitled “The Art of the Short Story” in honor of May being National Short Story Month. Some may see this as a continuation of my bonus article, yet I hope this blog post is perceived as something relatively fresh.
I believe that somewhere along the way, people (both readers and authors) started changing the composition and purpose of the short story. I have come to this conclusion via my own observations, not just as it pertains to comments behind the scenes on my short stories but also in seeing other people’s reviews on other authors’ publications classified as short stories.
The most prevalent comment is that a story “feels incomplete” or that “more should be added”. Closely followed is that “the characters should be more defined” or “this should have a richer plot”.
Let’s examine this a bit more closely. Yet before I do, let me share a bit of my upbringing and education in the realm of short story writing.
One of my favorite classes was Creative Writing. There was one assignment that had us write a story in less than one thousand words. On the surface it seems easy. However, if you are one that likes to go into lots of detail, then you can easily hit and go over that mark without giving it much thought.
Does one have enough time to give a rich plot or to make a well defined character in one thousand words, eight hundred words, five hundred words? If the writer is unable to, does that make the story less enjoyable or unworthy of a great rating or good review?
Lately, to both questions, the answer from some readers (even some authors) reflects yes.
I dare to rebel against this way of thinking due to:
(1) My expectation for a short story
(2) My approach in creating my own short stories
When I read a book of poems, there are certain elements that I anticipate seeing and certain elements I do not. I don’t expect a poem to be written as a novel; I anticipate lines and stanzas. I also expect there are certain grammar and punctuation rules that may be bent to provide impact. The poetry could be universal or personal—it could have no use of proper names at all.
In other words, I don’t expect a cut of sirloin to look like a piece of chicken breast.
The same goes for a short story.
I am not saying that a short story cannot have a rich plot, intriguing characters, or a solid ending. I am specifying that this style of writing does not have to possess those elements to be classified as effective storytelling.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, the message is being delivered that the cut of sirloin should look and taste exactly like a piece of chicken breast.
In this example, let’s just say that the short story is the chicken breast. It is affordable; one can do multiple things with the poultry, and the chicken can have different textures depending on who is cooking the food. If a person knows what he is doing, then the breast will have just the right amount of seasoning and tenderness; if he doesn’t, then one may end up with dry, poorly seasoned breast.
I don’t know about you but I’m not a fan of dry meat.
There are some people who always want the more expensive meat, so they go for the sirloin. Those people want their sirloin cooked a certain way, and I fear for that person who gets it wrong! If that person doesn’t get the steak cooked in the proper way, does that person immediately go for the chicken breast? Usually not. As a matter of fact, that person makes a complaint and demands that another sirloin gets prepared the right way.
The sirloin, in this case, represents the novel. A novel is supposed to have rich characters, extensive plot, and a solid ending. Even if the author is one to do sagas and series, there should be resolution to at least one conflict or plot hole prior to setting the stage for the next one. A novel has a lot more words to play with which gives that body of work a lot more flexibility and pacing.
So why are so many people expecting chicken breast (a short story) to be sirloin (a novel)?
Two words: they shouldn’t.
I was always deemed an unusual one, even in my younger years. I look at each facet of an interaction and see potential.
Take today in this very moment.
As I sit, incredibly aware of the surrounding silence, I ponder the reason for that silence. When two co-workers walk past each other, the body language, tone of the voices, even purpose of the exchange can give birth to something bigger.
In short, every moment of time represents a story. Just not every moment gets written about: most remain nestled in the crevices of the mind.
That is always how it has been for me in the formation of my own stories. My construct is based heavily on components from the stories that have inspired me: engaging dialogue, moral and symbolism. With the presence of symbolism, there is always the possibility of a lingering effect. Some would also call it the open ending. This leaves the reader to use his imagination regarding the fate of the character: the dénouement neither right nor wrong, just what is.
Now the “what is” has seemingly become bothersome. I will cite some of my own episodes as examples.
One of the first short stories I released independently was “Taint on Religion”. It was the tale of a young woman named Natasha who experienced some unfortunate events but was on the path to re-establish her relationship with God. Natasha becomes affiliated with the local reverend but finds out some things about him that put her at a crossroads as it pertains to the teachings of God and the community. The moral of the story was to put spotlight on the conflict. However, some people contacted me behind the scenes: desiring more information about Natasha and what happened to her.
Another story where people wanted “more” was “Mr. Bradley’s Garden”. “Mr. Bradley’s Garden” was first featured in a short story anthology by Durham Editing and Ebooks but I did eventually publish it solo. “Mr. Bradley’s Garden” is about a well known man in the community that delivers fruits and vegetables from his garden to his neighbors. As his health deteriorates, he can no longer make the deliveries. The story spotlights the behavior during this transition. I relied heavily on symbolism to deliver the teachable moment I was going for, yet a few were focused on the granddaughter and the grandmother, how their lives were afterwards.
Speaking of moral, here is what I’m trying to say, in a nutshell.
To the readers:
If you want to read a novel, read a novel. Just don’t expect a short story to behave like a novel. Also, unless the short story was written horribly, points should not be deducted for the open ending.
Side Note: “This is incomplete” should not even be a phrase used in reviewing short stories. (That is just my twenty-two cents.)
To the authors:
Quit pricing a short story as high as your novels. The short story should be the teaser for people to check out your other publications.
Everything doesn’t need a continuation. Some continuations are pointless, particularly with a short story. If the short story is a prequel to the novel, let it be the prequel. Don’t add so much that it defeats the purpose of picking up the novel.
Let less be more. It could lead to a greater appreciation of the talent.