So, here’s the thing about writing short stories that I love: they’re a challenge. Novels have hundreds of pages to develop a character, get them into and out of trouble, and tie everything up with a little bow. Short stories have a fraction of that, but are expected to do the same thing.
When I was in fandom, I used to write drabbles. For those of you who don’t know, a drabble is a 100 word story. Not a scene or a snippet or a vignette. An entire story compressed into 100 words. Granted, in fandom, this is easier because you don’t have to do any character or world building — that’s all inherently built in, so you can focus on story. Still, it’s a format that gives many writers pause. The watchword for drabbles is “economy”. Economy of thought, economy of words. Learning how to convey ten words of information in a single word. It’s a fascinating writing exercise, and I highly suggest it to all writers.
A short story is just an extension of that, to me. In 100 times 100 words (or thereabouts), create a world, fashion characters to live in it, present them with a problem, and guide them to a solution. And, if you like an extra challenge, tell a story that couldn’t be told in a longer format. You see, there’s a misconception that people who write short stories are either lazy, or lack the creative oomph to write a novel — that any short story could have been a novel if the writer had the chops. And I don’t believe that. There are stories that would simply fail in any longer form.
One of my favorite examples of this is Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples. It’s a reimagining of Snow White with tinges of erotic horror. In the short space of the story, Gaiman completely blew me away. But I can’t see how he could have carried it through into a longer piece and maintained the pace. It would have either fallen flat halfway through, or never achieved the level of tension managed in the short. It is exactly as long as it needs to be.
“But, Erik,” I hear you cry — or imagine I do, which may mean I need to take my meds again — “if it’s a reimagined Snow White, then it’s basically fanfic, right? You’ve got the story built in to use as a crutch.” And, okay, that may carry some weight, and I think even Neil would admit he relied at least partially on his audience already knowing the story. So, I’ve got another example for you that might be rather less well-known. Cornelia Grey wrote a short story called Apples, Regret, and Wasted Time (geez, what is it with the apples already?) that relies on no external storyline but still manages within 6,000 words to (if the reviews are any indication) peel back layer after layer of emotion and lay them bare. And she does this without giving either character a name!
Look at it this way: some runners are sprinters, and some are marathoners. But no one accuses the sprinters of being too lazy to run a marathon. It takes just as much training and just as much talent to cover 100 meters as it does 26.2 miles in such a way to make it interesting. And that’s the key. Running 100 meters at a marathoner’s pace isn’t going to impress anyone, and running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace just isn’t sustainable. (Though, granted, it would be damned impressive if someone could pull it off without their heart exploding.)
I’d still like to try my hand at a novel someday. I certainly have enough ideas for longer works. But it’s more than just “a short story, only longer”; it’s something I’m going to have to work toward, to retrain myself for a different kind of journey.
Until then, I’ll stick to the short stories.