The better I understand the structure and format of short fiction, the harder I find it to write.
I started writing not too long after I started reading. Kindergarten, maybe first grade. And, of course, I started with short fiction in the style of the stories I most liked to read, twisty “O. Henry” style works with unexpected twists at the end, usually with some element of the horrific.
I don’t remember much about what I read back in the 80s, but I do remember that my grandparents had big books of short horror stories, haunted houses, aliens, creatures from the swamp. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” I think. Along with a lot of Hardy Boys books in burlap-colored covers, but this post is about shorts so we’ll stick to that.
In my adolescence I read a lot of Stephen King. I’ve always preferred his short fiction; I think he has less room to meander and wander off the plot, so the endings are never as unsatisfying as his novels can on occasion be. I think King is one of my favorite short fiction authors, and that probably informed my early efforts more than a little.
I’d never written a novel, nor seriously attempted one, when I began self-publishing in 2011. Accordingly, my first few ebooks – “Apocalypse Party,” “Oh Human Child,” “And They Called Her Spider,” “Maiden Voyage of the Rio Grande,” “On the Trail of the Scissorman” under my own name and a bunch of others under pen names – were shorts in the 5-10k word range. They gradually got longer and longer until I was writing short novels with March of the Cogsmen and from that point onward, I didn’t really go back to shorts.
I’ve thought about it. I’ve read about it. And as I’ve grown more comfortable with the elbow room that a novel provides, I’ve found that I am less able to just whip off a short story. Why?
Well. If you google it, you’ll find that there are two basic camps regarding what a short story even is.
- A short story is basically a short novel but uses the same basic structure.
- No it isn’t.
The more I think about novel structure and the way I write, the more I find myself in the second camp. My current belief, sure to change given enough time, is that a short story’s format lies somewhere between a poem and a joke. There’s a set-up, there’s a punch-line, though it doesn’t have to be funny. You’re just trying to evoke something. The telling of the story, primary to the novel, becomes a servant of that something you’re trying to evoke.
In a humorous or horrifying story the something is subversion of expectation, either to delight or terrify the reader. In other stories, you’re not necessarily trying to subvert, but you still need that set up to give the punch-line its “oomph.”
So yeah. I don’t know. I find that a short can take a lot more thought, consideration, and planning to “work” to my design specifications. My standards are higher than my experience can deliver. So I sit here, working on my novels and not writing short stories, until I can figure out how.