Seize the Moment – Grab a Short Story

image of two books

[T]he story demands that you become a fuller participant in said experience. There won’t be any long authorial seduction of the reader; you need to be primed when you show up. And no chapters full of backstory, set-pieces, window-dressing, etc. Of course, all readers should be alert and dedicated all the time, but a novel is more likely to forgive you a brief lapse in attention here and there–a short story will just spit you back out, the end.”

Justin Taylor

A short story is a complete story in a very small package. As a reader of a short story, you fill in the details about the characters and their lives. A good one will have you thinking about it, in different ways, for a long time after you’ve finished reading.

Short stories use the same elements as novels but they tell a complete story with far less words. Because they are shorter, it doesn’t mean they are easier to write. Short story authors revise and rework their stories, looking for the best word to convey their meaning. They have to do more – express more, convey more – with less. In addition to having fewer characters, short stories often cover a very short time span. Some stories cover a few hours or a few minutes. A lot can happen in that small amount of time. Sometimes, but not always, a character’s whole life changes in the space of a few minutes.

Short stories also have some unique and unusual characteristics. Depending on the source you refer to, these works can be anywhere from 1,500 to 30,000 words. That is quite a range. In grad school, I wrote a paper on Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question”. This short story covers several trillion years of history in about 4,500 words. My analysis of the work was several pages longer than the story itself!

Another interesting feature of this type of literature is that they often end in a sudden, dramatic fashion that has a lasting impact. Sometimes there is a moral we are left to consider. This is in contrast to the novel. The ending of a novel is often the anti-climax, also called resolution, where most plot lines are tied up with a nice bow (unless there’s to be a sequel), the climax having occurred in the previous chapter. With the short story, it frequently ends with the climax. No loose ends are tied. We are often left wondering how it all works out (or doesn’t). As readers, we decide that by filling in the gaps with our imagination or by trying to figure out what the author meant. Either way, there is much to think about when reading short stories.

A distinguishing attribute of the short story is that it is meant to be read all at once. Depending on the individual reader, that can be a good thing or bad thing. Some people prefer the slow build up of the novel, while others enjoy the condensed, tight, brief story that can read in under an hour. It is surprising that, in this busy world where people never seem to have enough time, short stories are not a lot more popular. Whatever your preference, short stories continue to be a significant part of American literature.

What have you found to be the most striking aspect(s) of the short stories you have read? Do you prefer short stories or novels? Why? Please comment below.

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