In today’s Book and Brew takeover, Emma Whitehall sticks up for the short story.
My favourite piece of fiction is a short story by Richard Matheson, called Born of Man and Woman. Though it clocks in at just 1,232 words, this story of a strange child locked in a basement is one of the most powerful horror stories I’ve ever read, with a last line that sends chills down my spine every time I read it.
Matheson has written novels, but he shines in his shorter work – he is the master of the punch-to-the-gut ending, crafting his stories with barely a word wasted. He was one of my main influences around the time that I began my own journey into writing. I wrote a lot of flash fiction, before gradually extending my wordcount to the dizzying heights of 2,000 – or maybe, sometimes, 4,000 – words.
A place for short fiction
It’s notoriously difficult to find an agent who deals in short story collections. Finding a publishing house that deals in them results in a half-hour celebration and a barrage of excited tweets – at least, it does with me. And I can see why; in this fandom-centric world, it’s easier to sell a book that has a “Part 2” already in the works – especially if it would translate well into a three or four-part film series.
And those stories are a craft in themselves – my mind boggles at the amount of worldbuilding and character development that someone like George R. R. Martin or J.K. Rowling put into their books. It’s easy, given 35,000 words to play with, to ramble or lose your way or get tied down in meaningless fluff. Believe me – a beloved character of mine travelled from a short story, to a novel, to a poem, and back into a short story before I found her a home.
But I will rise to the defence of the short story, because I believe it has a place on our bookshelves, and in our Kindles – more so now, perhaps, than any time in history.
Reading in a busy world
When was the last time you sat down and read a book from cover to cover, in one go? What about even a paragraph?
When phones, children, work, commuting and television pose a constant distraction, readers often find themselves returning to a book days, weeks or months after picking it up, and having to re-read to remember exactly who was in love with whom, or who was overthrowing what and why.
Not so with a short story. To be able to read a whole story on your morning train to work, or while the Little Darlings are at football practise – that is what the readers of this world need now.
The power of words
Just as novels take a certain kind of writer, as do short stories. A short story writer needs to know the power of words, how to use them deftly.
A short story writer knows how to summarise, and how to imply. Going back to Matheson, that wonderful last line – “If they try to beat me again I’ll hurt them. I will.” – is all the more powerful for not spelling out exactly what will happen. A two-word sentence conveys as much anger, resentment, determination and darkness as some entire paragraphs. The audience will fill in the blanks, and their imaginations, coupled with that sense of foreboding, will create something far scarier than anything Matheson could write.
This is partly why the shorter form is perfect for genre fiction. A few meaningful lines of dialogue, or a clever ending, can write most of your worldbuilding for you.
A short story is a photograph
The novel, to me, is like a tapestry. You have the material and the space to tell a grand tale; setting your scene, devoting time to slowly building up intricate pictures of your characters, your world, and why it all matters, weaving all your plot points together.
A short story is a photograph. A short story is a moment, captured. There’s no space to show us what happened before or after, but we need to know why this moment is important, what emotions are being portrayed.
And, when done correctly, with skill and passion, that moment can impact on a reader in a powerful and lasting way.
Learn more about Emma on her website.