What IS a Short-Story?by Alex Keegan
The Internet Writing Journal, September 1999
In a recent class I was asked "What is a short-story?" My first answer was that it was something which could be read in one sitting and brought a singular illumination to the reader, sudden and golden like sunlight cracking through heavy cloud. I went on to say that in my opinion a "real" short-story was closer to poetry than to the novel.
It would be fair to say that not all my students were convinced. Were Alice Munro's "long ramblings" shorts or short-novels, someone asked? Maybe they were novellas? And surely they weren't "poetic"?
Putting poetry or the poetic approach aside for awhile, let's discuss word count; when is a short-story too long to still be a short? Is there an official point where a short becomes a novella, another where a novella becomes a novel? Is Hemingway's The Old Man & the Sea (very short) truly a novel?
To begin with, let's set an arbitrary limit of words. Let's for now agree that we are to deal with stories up to 10,000 words as short stories. No doubt someone can throw in a celebrated novel of 9,999 words, but humour me...
I'm not trying to be definitive here, so let's cherry-pick some definitions of the short-story. My favourite is Benét's: Something that can be read in an hour and remembered for a lifetime. I've been raving about a truly wonderful story by Nathan Englander called "The Twenty-Seventh Man." That's a "lifetime memory thing", a story I want every other writer to read, and one I'll re-read time and again. It got up under my rib-cage and touched me. I was jealous. I wanted to be its author.
Other definitions: "under 5,000 words, not a novel". One writer said, "The theme of a novel will not fit into the framework of a short-story; it's like trying to cram a mural into the frame of a miniature. And as in a miniature painting, (a small illumination or illustration) the details need to be sharp."
The short story -- Alice Munro an exception, (perhaps) -- is an illustration of one facet of human nature. Often a character undergoes some event and experiences something which offers him change. This is why it's said that short stories usually "say something", often a narrow or small something, but sometimes delivered with such precision that the effect is exquisite, even a life-moment for the reader, something akin to a religious experience or seeing a never-to-be-repeated scene in nature.
For a minute, let me remind you that, for me, the perfect short story is written with a poet's feel for language, with a poet's precision, and that the shape and sounds and rhythms of the words are more commonly part of the work's effect than is usually seen in the novel. In a poem, the bare words are virtually never the complete meaning. They interact, their sounds do things, how they are placed on the page matters. The poem tries to create a nugget of truth, an insight into being human and the form is so tight, so sparse that we can argue over exact meanings long into the smoke-laden night.
Rust Hills, in his excellent book Writing in General & the Short Story in Particular, refuses to define the short story, but he is prepared to talk about its nature. First, he says, a short story tells of something that happened to someone, and second, a short story (he means serious fiction, by the way) will demonstrate a more harmonious relationship between all it's aspects than will any other art form, with the possible exception of lyric poetry.
One reason for the confusions students often have over the definition of short stories is that other word-forms, anecdotes, sketches, vignettes or slices of life, often wheedle their ways into collections. These are often pretty and faintly moving, but somehow they leave a slightly unsatisfied feeling. The reader came looking for the intellectual-spiritual "hit" of the great short and instead was mildly amused. The less words we use, below a certain point -- let's briefly imagine this point is 1,500 words -- the harder it is to have something clearly occur to a character and have that occurrence change him (however slightly). Also the problem of weighting, pacing, and emphasis, the musical pauses, the ways light shines (and for how long) become increasingly difficult to handle as we have less and less room to wield our effects.
So, OK, for now, "under 10,000" words at the long end, (and that's at the very long end) of short-stories but how short? Are we saying under 1500 words is something not a short-story? Well, first, great writers can do in 600 words, what a solid writer might manage in 1100. My short story "The Commuter" was 599 words, "Prairie Dogs" was 760, "Forty-Two" 799 words; and too "long" ones were "Henry V" (1,050), and "Dog," a massive 1,100 words. I would consider them all to be short stories but somewhere down there, maybe at 500 words, the sheer confinement begins to create a new beast, often very interesting, but "cute" and an intellectual exercise, literary showing off rather than a natural giving of truth. In the UK, there's an annual competition for "Brians", after Brian Aldiss who popularised the form, for "stories", complete in exactly 50 words. Here are a couple:
They met by accident. She was a lawyer, he was a plumber. He wondered what the sex would be like. She thought it would be good. When she asked him, "Do you think it will be good, Harry?" he knew it would be great. Lawyer and plumber. It didn't last.
Frank believed in his luck. Frank smoked too much but he knew he'd never die of a heart attack or lung-cancer. Frank smoked all the time. One day there was a gas leak in Frank's kitchen. Frank went to fix it. He didn't die of a heart attack or lung-cancer.
They are fun, and they are sort of complete, but they aren't likely to lurk in our hearts and change our life view. Technically stories they may be, and short they definitely are, but "Short Stories", I argue, they are not. Edgar Allen Poe wrote that the short-story should have a single and unique effect and that every word, every sentence should matter. "If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not toward the one pre-established design."
There is a degree of unity in a well-thought out quality short-story, one I tend to call its theme. Hills referred to harmonious relationships. That is the whole is committed, intense, specific, nothing left to woolly chance. This kind of single-minded intensity in a novel would be wearing indeed, but in the one-sitting contract with the reader of a short-story, it is presumed that the reader will cope. Hence, when the story has quality, often the experience seems profound.
OK, so far my definition has reached here: A short story is a narrative, rarely, over 10,000 words or below 500 words, more commonly 1,500-5,000 words -- a single-sitting read, but with enough time and weight to move the reader. It is narrow and focused to produce a singular effect, the story's meaning, most commonly thru events affecting some change or denial of change in an individual. All aspects of a short-story are closely integrated and cross-reinforcing; language, POV, tone and mood, the sounds as well as the meanings of the words, and their rhythm.
Isabelle Allende wrote: "Novels are, for me, adding up details, just work, work, work, then you're done. Short stories are more difficult -- they have to be perfect, complete in themselves".
British Crime and Literary Fiction Author Alex Keegan is publisher and editor of the British literary magazine, Seventh Quark. He is
creator of the five Caz Flood novels: Cuckoo (Headline Books, St. Martin's Press), Vulture,
Kingfisher, Razorbill (Headline Books) and A Wild Justice (Piatkus Books)
which all feature feisty female private investigator Catherine "Caz" Flood. Cuckoo was published in the U.S. by St Martin's Press, and
was nominated for an Anthony Award as best first novel.
His prize-winning short stories have been featured in numerous publications including Mystery and Manners, BBC Radio 4, Blue Moon Review, Southern Ocean Review, and The Atlantic. He is a Contributing Editor for The Internet Writing Journal. His blog can be found here.