At the Edge of the Short Story

What gets left behind, and I do not mean edited or scrapped from a manuscript.? What does not even get allowed in, in the first place? How is the sculpting of a short story achieved? Far more important, what exactly is it that we leave out almost before we set out to write, to construct our new little universe, our new little pearl in its shell? What barriers do we set up? And what are we keeping out?
We do set borders, knowingly or unknowingly. They have to contain everything inside to support human life, in a couple of thousand words. Managing all this in the statutory two and a half thousand words becomes second nature for competitions or magazines. But there are further stages.
They range from Dorothy Parker’s 2421-word A Telephone Call, past Dylan Thomas’s 3016-word A Child’s Christmas in Wales and up to the 5557 words of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party. Beyond ten thousand word-leagues, Newfoundland beckons, and the land of the Novella. But the essence of the short story is how it manages to contain its subject-matter.
From childhood bedtimes I remember the ending of a Hans Anderson story, The Swineherd, which tells us:
“He went into his own kingdom, and shut the door,” with an illustration ((by Jennie Harbour) of the prince opening the large wooden door into his walled kingdom. Inside was his story. Outside were we readers. It was not fuzzy. It had definite design and we were definitely shut out.
Two stories which show exceptionally harsh borders are W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw (4134 words) and O.Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. (2163 –most of his are round the 2500 mark.)Both short stories have such obvious boundaries that once one has read them, re-entry is almost impossible. The borders are too tight. The reader is aware of the cast-iron edges after the first reading.
In a looser format, The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Brett Harte manages to cram an entire era of history into about 5000 words. His population covers extreme personalities of a small town. ( I would suggest this short story has the seeds of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.)
With our sparse, or sometimes crammed, short prose, we expect the reader to fill in the spaces. The hint of locale, a spray of weather, a slight description of a character is all that we can give. The reader’s imagination has to be prompted to fill in the rest. There are no footnotes, no second chances.
Unlike the novel there are no paragraphs spare to devote to setting.
How do we know whether Katherine Mansfield is in Australia or Germany? (The Stranger 4722, The Garden Party 5557)
She places deft touches. It is like watching a dockside crane lift a cargo delicately aboard ship. The adjectives have to be set in precisely, like jewels into waiting gold claws.
Unlike a novel a good short story invites the reader back in, to work out extra questions, wander around touching things, replacing them back on the mantelpiece. Why did … do that? What am I supposed to think? Or not think? It can be nuanced and oblique. One does not feel as shut out as at the end of a novel when its world closes and you are left on the outside for good and all. ( Especially in detective fiction -‘The butler did it.’) A short story can be re-entered again, easily. ‘Take me back to that shuttered house’ – Deacon Blue.
You can feel, as the writer, starting a new story, as if the ending is dashing towards you and you are trying to save essential parts from extinction. Bits have to ‘go.’ It’s like that game of ‘what would you save from a burning house?’ As the essentials are clutched, the spares are jettisoned – thoughts, ruminations, philosophies and pontificating.
I have noticed in longer novels what I term the windscreen-wiper-effect. Just as the story reaches three-quarters of the way through, it backtracks and padding appears to achieve the necessary 420 pages. (Ian Rankin, The Naming of the Dead 2006 -but he has no padding!))Some authors use recipes, lists of suitcase contents, road by road itineraries, detailed almost police-like character descriptions, geographical reports so exact you could invade, room decors, history lessons, clothing so detailed you could sew the same outfit yourself; these gizmos are all used.
In another slimming-down for the short story, genealogy has to be left out – generations are compressed into one sentence. There goes Catherine Cookson and the ‘begats’ of the Bible, in Genesis 5. Characters have to get on with their living immediately, without their family tree being included.
The short story has to be exact yet enigmatic in its small cell. There is no place for long-winded explanations or soul-searchings. A house is summed up with ‘pungent stew,’ time in ‘ moonlight stripes,’ and we have to use more unusual words because we have to get good value from what we use. It has to be high-vitamin writing, no loaded calories, or junkfood stuffing.
Clarity comes from this economy.
For instance ‘The Outcasts from Poker Flats’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (6155) are as clear as a black and white photograph. I first read them as a teenager and re-reading them this week, they are as clear as ever.
People in short stories usually arrive fully-made. No Tristram Shandy prevarications, no shilly-shallying. They get about doing things and use up many verbs immediately, I would guess far more verbs than their novel-counterparts. They can arrive already enmeshed in a circumstance, no explanations or build-ups needed. They are already clothed, fed and are usually grown up. They have something to do or something has already happened to them, pleasant or unpleasant.
Verbs are already clustering round. The blue touch-paper is ready to be lit and the explosion will go off soon. You don’t have to plough through a couple of pages of introduction, settling in – it has to dash off immediately.
We often have to cut out the slow introductions and the forensic details. Many people feature in short stories managing quite well without any ‘firm-cut chins’ or ‘carefully braided auburn hair’ – they are already too busy to stop for a mirror description. Our people hurry towards the ‘story’ that they are already part of, safe in the knowledge that we have constructed firm walls around them.

* classicshorts.com site gives wordcounts

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2 Responses to At the Edge of the Short Story

  1. Very nice! You have captured the essence of what sets the short story apart. I think short stories are the most underrated literary genre (if they can be called a genre) and find them difficult to write. They require both precision and subtlety and, when done well, leave a lasting impression much like poetry.

    • patjourdan says:

      They are a cross between an addiction and an itch. I find short stories the mental equivalent of going to a gym – coming out clearer and brighter and with renewed enthusiasm afterwards.The piece was intended for a Short Story Conference, but was not entered.

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