Recently, I read two short stories from a collection I had picked up in the Kindle store. Both were romances, and both were from different romance sub-genres. For the curious, neither was Jane Austen Fan Fiction. And sadly, neither left me feeling completely satisfied.
Now, before anyone starts the “Well, of course, they weren’t satisfying. They were short stories. Nothing short is ever good. The only real stories, the only ones that can be good, the only ones that are worth my time and money are long.” bashing, let me tell you that I am a life-long LOVER of short stories. And I will add, that if the above is your way of thinking, you’re wrong. I am not the sort of person who usually makes such definitive statements in blog posts about such things, but in this case, I feel I must because it is true and because that’s how much I love short stories.
Short stories are an art form. And as is true with any sort of art form, there are those who will adore it as well as those who will despise it. Therefore, what I believe precipitates the faulty thinking above is first and foremost preference. Some people want copious words and pages to fill their days, weeks, and months with the anticipation of an eventual resolution to one solitary central conflict. While others (like me) hunt for small, satisfying morsels to fill their mind with a wide variety of plots, settings, and characters. Neither of those preferences is wrong. Both are acceptable. And in some cases, which I am not going to get into here as I have already written about book series, these two differing points of view can merge.
(eg. While I would most likely avoid picking up a chunky book at the library, opting instead for something thinner, I enjoy interconnected stories within a particular world and might pick up three such books that when put together are just as chunky as that book I avoided.)
The faulty thinking stated above might also be attributed in a large part to short stories that are missing one or more important ingredients. You see, while a short story might have fewer words than a novel, it should still contain all of the essential elements that make a story a story.
So, just what are those essential elements? Well, very basically and perhaps too simplistically stated, every story needs a beginning, middle, and end.
Why is this too simple an answer? Think about this:
If we are going with the beginning, middle, and end structure, I could say:
I went to the shed. I took out the lawn mower and mowed the grass. Then, I sat on the porch and surveyed my handiwork while drinking lemonade.
That follows the structure, but it isn’t a story. It’s an event. It’s a happening.
Then, what is missing from this relation of an event that would make it a story instead of an event? I think this excerpt from an article on Writer’s Digest states the answer to that question very well:
So then, what is a story?
Centuries ago, Aristotle noted in his book Poetics that while a story does have a beginning, a middle and an ending, the beginning is not simply the first event in a series of three, but rather the emotionally engaging originating event. The middle is the natural and causally related consequence, and the end is the inevitable conclusive event.
In other words, stories have an origination, an escalation of conflict, and a resolution.
Of course, stories also need a vulnerable character, a setting that’s integral to the narrative, meaningful choices that determine the outcome of the story, and reader empathy. But at its most basic level, a story is a transformation unveiled—either the transformation of a situation or, most commonly, the transformation of a character.
Simply put, you do not have a story until something goes wrong.
At its heart, a story is about a person dealing with tension, and tension is created by unfulfilled desire. Without forces of antagonism, without setbacks, without a crisis event that initiates the action, you have no story. The secret, then, to writing a story that draws readers in and keeps them turning pages is not to make more and more things happen to a character, and especially not to follow some preordained plot formula or novel-writing template. Instead, the key to writing better stories is to focus on creating more and more tension as your story unfolds.
Therefore, if in my simple tale of mowing the lawn, I anger my neighbour because I woke him up too early or I run out of fuel or my lawnmower is too heavy to push up the steep incline of the front yard, now I have some tension. I have a conflict that needs to be overcome and in sharing how that happens is where the story is found and what will make sitting on the porch drinking lemonade a more satisfying ending since that glass of sweetness will be well-earned. [The ending might be even better, if I have gone with the first source of conflict, should I be sitting on the neighbour’s porch sipping lemonade with him.]
Again, this is, for the sake of illustration, giving a rather simple look at what makes a story. Going back to that Writer’s Digest article (which I found very informative and ended up buying the writer’s book), when telling how I go from getting the lawnmower from the shed to finding myself on the porch with an ice-cold beverage, my story should include the following five elements:
- Orientation — This is the setup. This is where a reader learns about the setting and the main character and begins to care what happens to that main character.
- Crisis — This is where the main character’s world gets turned upside down. For example, getting the lawn mowed is more challenging if there is no gas in the tank or the rechargeable battery has no charge. (This might be the initial event in a story or part of that initial event, which means it can be combined with the orientation.)
- Escalation — This is where the crisis becomes more complex. Challenges arise to thwart the main character’s plan to solve his problem of no gas in the mower. These things should bring about transformation in the character. Perhaps, in the lawnmowing example, this will require me to complete a physical task that is not normal for me to do such as walking ten miles to town, or it could require me to ask that cranky neighbour for help.
- Discovery — This is usually what happens at the climax of the story as this is the point where the main character will have a decision to make and will likely discover something about him or her -self in the process. This is the part that brings us to the satisfying resolution to the story.
- Change — “This change marks the resolution of the crisis and the culmination of the story.” The main character is forever changed. He or she will never be as they once were. Hopefully, they have changed for the better, but that is not necessary. The only thing that is necessary is that there is a change.
That’s a lot of ingredients to put into one short story, isn’t it? Writing short is not necessarily easy. It takes precision and careful attention to detail to do it well.
Let’s go back to the two short stories I read and enjoyed but found not quite as satisfying as I would have liked for them to be. I have been pondering what it was that made them feel this way to me. That’s what I do. I analyze during reading and after figuring out what it was that made a story likable or that made it fall short. Sometimes those things are easy to understand such as a lack of emotional connection or too much description that muddied the waters of the action. Sometimes, like with these two stories, it is not so easy to figure out. They were very good stories. However, I still had that feeling that something was missing.
Here’s what I think it was.
In the first story, I think it was missing the elements of discovery and change. There was some, but not much. The resolution which was short, as it should be, was perhaps a bit too short or perhaps the way that the final problem was solved was too easy so that the moment of decision was not as pronounced as it could be. A few hundred more words would likely have fixed this.
In the second story, the resolution was lacking somewhat. It felt as if there was still one hurdle for the hero to get over before all could be resolved. The guardian of the young lady who was the heroine was not accepting of the hero and while the heroine was willing to accept the hero without that conflict being resolved, to me, it felt like a dangling thread still in need of tying off. Now, if this had been the first of a series of stories with that conflict being part of all the remaining stories or if it was the conflict to be dealt with in the next story, I could have overlooked this and would have eagerly sought out the next story. However, as far as I can tell, this short story is a standalone work, and, therefore, this dangling plot issue left it feeling incomplete.
Before I conclude, let me make one thing perfectly clear here. The feeling of a story being too short is NOT necessarily the sign of a poorly written book. It is my belief that an excellent book will leave a reader longing to know more about the characters with whom she has fallen in love and wanting to spend more time in that world with her friends, discovering other tales that happen there. That is what makes Jane Austen Fan Fiction tick after all. JAFF readers, like you and I, want to know more about our favourite characters and stories.
Therefore, before one criticizes a story as being too short, one must stop to consider if the story is missing any critical element. If it is, then, yes, with support for the statement, one may say that a story is too short. However, if there is no essential element missing and yet you wish the story continued, one’s evaluation should be that it was an excellent story that left one longing for more.
The reason I have been pondering these things is because I am currently working on a short story that has been taking a slightly different path than some I have written. Therefore, it is important to me that I am hitting the key elements even if they are not presented in the order and method to which I am accustomed to having them appear. When this happens, I go reading and thinking. I read articles such as the Writer’s Digest one, I read stories, and I ponder how what I read about the elements of stories matches with the stories I have read and the one I am writing. This is just one way that I strive to improve my skills and better my craft. And hopefully, just hopefully, the end result will be an interesting and satisfying story which will leave my readers longing for more.
The above are a few of the shorter stories I have written and published. All can be found at your favourite ebook retailer, but the first two books are currently thank you gifts to those who join my mailing list. If you would like to read a few free short stories and vignettes, they can be found at this link: Tales from Pemberley.
And that short story that I am working on? Well, it will become a series of Sweet Tuesdays posts on my blog after my current story, His Darling Friend, completes posting on May 7.
So what about you, are you a short-story reader? Are there any you have read that you would recommend? I’m always looking for well-written sweet Regency romance short stories, and they’re not easy to find.