What exactly is a short story? In one sense it is completely obvious – a story that is short – but defining it is something far more complicated than issues of length. The short story has always been at the core of everything I write from my collection of travel fictions, (Small Indiscretions: stories of travel in Asia, 2011) to my latest book, a YA novel told in vignettes (The Incredible Here and Now, 2013) and the novel I’m currently writing which has chapters that read as self-contained short stories. Despite this, I find it difficult to articulate an answer to this question. If you read and you write enough short stories it is a form that you recognise instinctively. You just know what a short story is, just like you know how to breathe without thinking about it.
I think the answer to the question lies somewhere in an understanding of what the short story is ‘about’ and on the surface that often isn’t very much. Some successful short stories do have complicated plot structures with lots of twists and turns but in a lot of short stories not much seems to happen. Try to explain to people what a short story is about and you’re often not left with much. Take for example Nam Le’s brilliant short story, ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.’ Essentially, this is a story about a guy who is trying to write something but gets interrupted by a visit from his father who doesn’t appear to appreciate his writing very much.
This work shows that what short stories are really about is not plot but the slice of life that they manage to translate onto the page. This story works more by implication, by mood and atmosphere. It is more about the things that are not said than the things that are said. It is a short story and not a novel because of the things that are left out. The limited space the form allows for here, enforces a preciseness with language and imagery that you don’t always get in the novel. A series of almost non-events are turned into something of profound significance as Le uses them to hint at his father’s traumatic past and his inability to really communicate with a son who lives in a present he can’t comprehend. The short story has an intensity that cannot be replicated all the way through a longer text like a novel.
C.S. Lewis argued that the series of events the reader is offered in a short story are only ‘a net to catch something else.’ I think what he meant by this is that a short story is ultimately about using a small moment in time to make a much larger point about the world we live in. Perhaps, ultimately that is the answer to the question, What is a short story?
Felicity Castagna will be running Shaping the Short Story over six weeks, commencing Tuesday 15 October.