But what, exactly, is a short story? Is it an excerpt of something greater? Or is it the only worthwhile piece taken out of an otherwise un-noteworthy existence?
By some definition, every story, no matter the length, is an excerpt. We live complicated lives. Telling the true story of a life would be impossible without it being much longer than the life itself.
Take one of my favorite recent novels, The Time Traveler’s Wife, which was also adapted into a movie. (Yes, yes, inevitable spoiler alert…) Even if we discount the fact that much of his childhood is only summarized, the story of his life is really the story of his time travel and how that affected his marriage. Mentions are made of his friendships and work life, but these are downplayed in deference to the real story line. The story is an excerpt of his life. It doesn’t tell the whole story.
When I first read some of the great Ray Bradbury’s short stories, I was struck by a sense of “But What Happened Next?!?”
I wanted more.
I didn’t get it.
Well, I got more stories. Bradbury was prolific, thank God! But it is rare that a short story is turned into a larger work. That’s not the point. It’s not a contest where only the best of the best shorts get to grow up and become novels. The point of a short story is to convey a complete story in as few words as possible.
On many of the short stories I’ve shared Under Loch and Key, I get comments like “That was great! I hope you continue this…” Those comments give me mixed feelings. I’m glad they liked the story…but wasn’t it complete in and of itself? Didn’t it give a satisfying ending?
Oh, the ending… well, if I’m writing Romance, it must have a Happily Ever After or at least an “emotionally satisfying” ending. That’s the rule. In SciFi, I can blow up the entire solar system and kill off all my characters, and still have a good story. Sometimes the ending is supposed to make the reader think “…and then what happened?”
Like in my short story Burning the Letter. It stands alone, with characters I’ve never written about before and probably never will again. At the end, I want the reader to wonder what happens next. I want to spark discussion about whether Emily can save her marriage, or even whether she should. I don’t want to write more and take that pondering away.
Then again, there are short stories like Synaesthesia. I wrote it as a stand-alone, just a little short inspired by a picture of John Quinlan. But inspiration struck and I turned it into an 18 chapter novella.
So what is a short story? To what extent must it stand alone? If the reader is left wanting more, does that mean the writer has succeeded or failed?
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