A short story happens when a writer sees the prospect of a moment, a pivot point, and consciously decides it’s the whole thing. It’s neither a twist nor a turn in something much longer – it’s the thing itself. Yes, there’s more to do – and some more to write – in order to make the pivot meaningful, to create stakes, but it stays contained.
It’s almost two centuries since Edgar Allan Poe wrote about what constitutes good writing and created his ‘read in a single sitting’ rule, and he’s been quoted relentlessly since. But the art of the short story is not so much about the time the reader spends on their sofa as about scope. As a writer, pick an idea of the right scope, contain it appropriately, and you have yourself a short story. Contain the cast, contain the time period, contain the business you attend to, enter as late as possible and exit as soon as the business is done.
Great short stories are rarely stories that simply run out of steam early and are brought to a judicious close. Great short stories are more likely to be written with a clear eye on what they are, and how to make the best of them.
Then the reader’s sofa time is well spent.
Containment allows for focus, compression and intensity, and the creation of something compact that’s nonetheless complete unto itself. And that means that reading a short story collection is not like reading a novel. With a compelling novel, however late the hour, there’s always the pull of the next chapter, the next part of the same story. Some of the best short story collections demand the reader occasionally take a break from reading, without racing on to the next story, even though they want to. Really good short story writers are the ones who at times make me think, ‘That was so good I need to stop.’ I need to savour, process, digest the story I’ve just read, breathe and give it some space before uploading the first sentence of the next, or anything else.
Some short story collections that have had that effect on me:
Tara June Winch’s After the Carnage
Josephine Rowe’s Tarcutta Wake
Laura Elvery’s Trick of the Light
Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities
Nick Earls is the author of 27 books for adults, teenagers and children. His writing has won awards in Australia, the UK and US, and appeared on bestseller lists in those countries. His Wisdom Tree novella series received gold medals in the Independent Publisher Book Awards (US) and the eLit Awards (US), as well as winning the People’s Choice Award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. His PhD thesis comprised the Wisdom Tree novellas and research on contemporary novella craft and publishing.
Join Nick Earls for his online course, Writing Short Stories, from 2 May to 10 June. This workshop will be held online. Enrol here >>
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