Tim Chapman is the author of A Trace of Gold. You can find out more about him here, see his books here, and read his latest post here.
Who Took My Shorts?
I love short stories. I read them. I write them. I listen to them in the car and at the gym. There’s been talk in literary circles of late that short stories are making a comeback. With publishers tossing 600-page door stops at readers and being reluctant to gamble on single-author collections and anthologies it looked for a while like short stories were in decline. Magazines devoted to fiction were disappearing from newsstands. Sure, readers had a brief love affair with George Saunders, Karen Russell, Jumpa Lahiri, and Lauren Groff, but novels sell better than story collections and today’s publishers are all about sales. Bennett Cerf is probably spinning in his grave. Fortunately, a number of magazines and journals devoted to short fiction survived, and now, web-based magazines are popping up all over.
Is A Short Just Short?
A short story isn’t a stripped-down novel or a vignette. It still needs a beginning, middle, and ending, but telling a story in fewer than 10,000 words requires the writer to be concise while holding to the writers’ adage of “show, don’t tell.” Consequently, a paragraph carries the weight of a chapter. Each word must be carefully chosen. Think of the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle. Every element in a short story should support the narrative. No extraneous details allowed.
Another trait of the well-written story involves theme. Most fiction has both an obvious theme and a subtextual theme. The protagonist in a hero’s journey may encounter dangerous obstacles in his attempt to right a wrong or save the innocent(s), but the subtext of these stories is often a lesson about perseverance or friendship or self-esteem. The hero grows and learns. Frodo Baggins anyone? Parables, fairytales, and fables* all teach life lessons. The short stories I like to read do the same. And in today’s fractious world, we could use a few life lessons.
Who Likes Short Shorts?
I love anthologies. There’re like a smorgasbord. You might not like everything, but there’s plenty to try. The “Best American Short Stories” series is a good place to start. Every year since 1978 the editors have picked twenty or so stories to reprint from literary journals. Similarly, there’s a “Best American Mystery and Suspense” series with stories from a variety of magazines including the Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock magazines. Both of those are good choices, though I’m partial to “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine” since several of my crime stories have appeared in its pages. As for literary journals, your local bookstore should have a selection. In addition to short fiction, you’ll likely be treated to short-short or “flash” fiction and poetry. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a literary journal I recently edited; “Litbop: Art and Literature in the Groove” showcases art and photography as well as fiction and poetry.
As for what authors/stories to look for, let me give you just a few of my favorites. With the holidays approaching, O. Henry and Damon Runyon stories are good bets. Looking for the beginnings of feminist fiction? Check out stories by Kate Chopin and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Humanist science fiction? Ray Bradbury, of course. My two favorite crime stories are by authors who aren’t generally associated with crime fiction; “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. And for a short course in short story writing check out “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain” in which brilliant short story writer George Saunders dissects stories by Chekhov and three more Russian masters.
So pour yourself the beverage of your choice, find a comfy spot to spend a little time, and get your shorts on!
*NOTE: Check out reruns of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show for parodies of fables and fairytales!
This Post Has 15 Comments
Tim — What a fun post! I’m a huge fan of short stories. One of my favorite times to read them is on commercial flights. It’s the perfect way to get from Point A to Point B.
I plan to read more short stories in the future. I’m glad to see there’s a thriving market for them now. And perhaps I’ll try my hand at writing them again. I haven’t for so many years.
I like funny short stories. And my fave crime story also comes from an author not associated with crime fiction: Roald Dahl who wrote Lamb to the Slaughter.
I love that one!
I admit I’m partial to holiday mysteries. I have several anthologies that I pull out every Christmas.
Let’s not forget some wonderful short stories published recently by Blackbird Writers members Anne Louise Bannon and Sharon Lynn. You’ll find those short mystery stories and 32 more in the anthology called Malice Domestic Mystery Most Theatrical, an ideal stocking stuffer gift now or for any day of the year. Thanks, Tim, for a nice post and good luck with your literary magazine!
As one who doesn’t read short stories and hates to write them, I’m not a good person to comment here. But I support all of you who love them–I know most people seem to. And I am definitely sending my very best wishes for success with your magazine.
Love this post. I love short stories too and need to get back to reading them! Great post!
I loved your humorous post, Tim! You had me going with the term “Chekhov’s Gun,” so I looked it up. Ah ha! I do know the principle, but didn’t know the Chekhov label. I learn something new every day! Thanks.
Did you know that (quoting from Wikipedia): “Ernest Hemingway mocked the principle in his essay ‘The Art of the Short Story,’ giving the example of two characters that are introduced and then never mentioned again in his short story ‘Fifty Grand’? Hemingway valued inconsequential details, but conceded that readers will inevitably seek symbolism and significance in these inconsequential details.”
I’m so glad short stories are having a comeback. Thanks, Tim for this great post!
I live well written and touching short stories. I recently finished a book of short stories by a friend, Bruce Campbell, who journaled his entire medical career and published a wonderful book of his experiences.
Abd I’ll check out Hemingway’s “50 Grand.”
Shorts are a great escape between novel writing. Helps keep your game on. Thanks for the quality post!
I enjoy writing shorts, too. It’s nice to leave my mystery genre under wraps for a bit to create YA or Sci Fi stories. I taught almost all the pieces you mentioned to my high school lit students. I have an edgy soft spot for Kate Chopin, but Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants produced some pretty hot discussions in my classroom. Thanks for tossing short stories back into the ring, Tim!
I’ve enjoyed the stories in Litbop, Tim. And the artwork, too. I’m just getting into the realm of short story writing. So I’m taking your advice to heart. Thanks for the post!