New fiction writers usually begin with a short story. This is a wise choice since a novel requires a lot of experience and the stamina of a plow horse.
But what are the essential qualities of a short story?
Brevity is one obvious feature. A story that rambles on for several dozens of pages is likely to be considered a novella, a twilight zone genre that is unpopular among publishers today.
Two other aspects should be kept in mind: singleness of effect and a limited number of characters. A novel has the space to explore sub-plots and a mixture of diverse effects like sadness and humor. A short story must get to one point quickly with a few characters.
Realistic, pithy dialogue is important to a short story because it can serve two purposes: to advance the plot rapidly and describe the characters by the way they speak. One famous author never provides a narrative physical description of his characters. His readers form a picture of the characters based on their dialogue.
The question of what constitutes a good short story is more difficult to answer. A story can succeed in creating subtle nuances of meaning within its brief format. Good examples of this are found in J. D. Salinger’s collection “Nine Stories.” Seven of the stories have tantalizing endings patterned after satori, the sudden flash of insight taught by Zen.
A short story doesn’t have to be plot-driven and resolve a conflict. It can be a character study or focus on mood and atmosphere or explore philosophical ideas. Some great stories are virtually plotless and leave the protagonist in confusion at the end. Simplistic moral tales are almost always boring.
W. Somerset Maugham was fond of understating the case by saying a good short story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Although Maugham wrote many good stories, this sounds more like advice for writing the stage plays that made him famous early in his career.
Which brings up a salient fact. Few successful authors are able to shed much light on exactly how they wrote their stories. Guy de Maupassant, widely considered the best short story writer in history, once composed a great story about a ball of string to win a bet. Isak Dinesen could weave a fascinating story if given a random first sentence. But neither writer was capable of teaching anyone else the secret of their story-telling magic.
The reason is simple: there are no rules to a good short story. Formula writing is non-creative by definition, like painting by the numbers. Creative writing is not verbal brick-laying and cannot be learned like a trade. It is an art and not a science. The so-called rules of a good short story are inferred after the fact by literary scholars. They are artificial logic maps imposed on the largely-unconscious creative process, but the map is not the territory. The actual territory consists of dreams, fantasies, memories, hallucinations, hopes, fears, phobias, compulsions and other aspects of the inner life not governed by logic. No writer worth his salt ever thought about rules when he was composing a short story. The experience is more like a trance than an act of consciousness.
Paul Theroux has a useful suggestion: write a story like it has never been written before. The only way to do this is to rely on the uniqueness of your own perspective and life experiences. Psychologically speaking, each person lives in a different world. To write an interesting short story requires a temporary suspension of ordinary consciousness to tap into that world for inspiration.
However, only practice makes perfect. For one thing rewriting is an absolute necessity because no writer ever gets it right the first time. This is a deeply unpleasant part of writing — the 90% perspiration to go with the 10% inspiration.
The other half of the unpleasantness is the fact that you will write some bad stories before you ever learn how to write a good one. This can’t be avoided any more than rewriting. Think of it as paying your dues as a writer. Do your best on each story, but move on to the next one if you hit a wall. Too many new writers get discouraged and quit writing because they were unable to turn a bad idea into a good story.
The art of the short story is really the art of getting in touch with bits of your inner self and learning how to share that experience with readers.
William Starr Moake has written more than 50 short stories. Most have been published by various magazines and in his paperback collection Time Is But A Stream. He is also the author of two novels.