THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL SHORT STORY

It’s easier to say what a short story isn’t than what it is. It isn’t an anecdote and it isn’t a section of a novel and it isn’t an essay. (There is a form called the long story but that’s another song.) Though short stories since Chekhov often end ambiguously, they can’t end indefinitely and still be a full story.

Short story endings are often a sore point with readers. What happened? What’s going to happen next? If these are the reader’s questions at the end of a story, the story might not yet be right. Even when I don’t understand the full meaning and stretch of a story’s ending, if I don’t feel finality – the way you feel when someone walks out the door – then something’s gone wrong.

Short story beginnings demand a lot of writer and reader. The reader must be immediately involved. This doesn’t mean that the reader understands the beginning any more than the ending. It just means that the writer has succeeded in placing you, the reader, in the world of the story, and you don’t dare to leave until it’s over. In reading a fine story, we feel involved, curious, and committed to the story’s world.

Storried The Essential Elements

The beginning and the ending of a short story are part of the wonderful secret of the story and why it’s neither a novel nor a novella nor a footnote nor an anecdote. The short story has a formal completeness but doesn’t call attention to this in the best work.

The present, ongoing action of the story and the past – call it background or ghosts – sometimes push against each other. Sometimes the past sneaks in front of the present and tries to block the way forward. When I read stories by master writers – Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, Katherine Anne Porter, William Trevor – I find a path to follow through the crowded forest of the story’s world.

A story that begins by retreating into the past has the cart before the horse. In a good beginning, the reader’s right there in the story’s world, in the present, and when the past comes lurching from behind, the reader knows the difference between now and then. More and more in the short story – Raymond Carver’s work is an obvious example – writers give little weight to the characters’ past, to family life, pedigree, war stories. Yet time is such a powerful force in the short story that without knowing that a character grew up on a dairy farm in Ohio, we know something of the history that the character carries by the way he or she acts and reacts in the present.

In the short story there’s always a shadow cast on the present by what has just been said or not said, or thought but not done, or even by a wish.

While the story’s plot develops, past and present wrangle with one another, and the characters struggle against that tension. At the story’s end, there’s the peace that comes with the release of tension, for good or ill.

The greatest success comes when the writer’s skill lets the reader float on the story’s current and notice nothing of form or technique.

Source: Laura Furman/www.signature-reads.com/2017/09/the-essential-elements-of-a-successful-short-story/

image: sliderplayer.com

 

Tags:  

Storried is Now on DreamAfrica

Discover DreamAfrica - Voices, animations and films from Africa and around the world.


Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL SHORT STORY

It’s easier to say what a short story isn’t than what it is. It isn’t an anecdote and it isn’t a section of a novel and it isn’t an essay. (There is a form called the long story but that’s another song.) Though short stories…

Newsletter

Subscribe to our emailing list and get notified of the top stories on the web.

Scroll to top