Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Story on the Short Story

I used to inhale short stories growing up. Not the nice, chipper, fairy-tale kind, but the dark, warped stories written by depressed people who fixated on death. I'm not sure who I have to thank for this, although it probably has something to do with my mom's obsession with Edgar Allan Poe. Her favorite story of his was always The Tell-Tale Heart, and things kind of spiraled downward from there. No ten-year-old kid likes to read about hearts beating beneath the floorboards.

All damaging childhoods aside, I think there is something to be said for the short story. They aren't very lucrative these days, and people rarely wander into a bookstore looking for a collection of short stories. I do think, though, that the skill of a good short story writer is vastly underrated. Novels weave in and out of subplots, characters come and go, climaxes eventually happen somewhere towards the end. But short stories are short, sweet, and economical. Beginning, middle, end. Characters are rich, but not overdeveloped. It's easy, right? Just 10,000 words and you have yourself a dinky little story.

Well, no. I've read many of the famous quotes out there about the gift of brevity, which always serves a good short story. Less is more. Always. And yet the characters in short stories require the same depth that characters in novels do. Otherwise who cares. I won't read five sentences about a dull, simplified character. I'm not sure who would, but that's another topic for another day.

And so, here I have proclaimed my love and admiration for the short story. If you can do in 10,000 words or less what a novelist does in 80,000, then you've already mastered pacing, editing, and cutting unnecessary details. And that, I think, is quite a skill.

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