More Short Story Mullings (AKA Why I Don’t Like Them)

Yesterday I made a post about the fact that I’d like to try and learn how to write short stories more effectively.  A treasure trove of info was passed on (thanks y’all!) and I’m working on making my own little short story blueprint.  But anyway, in the comments, I mentioned that I don’t actually like short stories, which led to the “um, should you actually try to write them then?”

Well, first off, I think they are challenging, and I’m all about learning to do new things.  I think learning to write short stories hones a very different set of skills from writing novels.

Second, I should qualify this statement by saying, I don’t like most of the short stories I’ve READ.

And I got to thinking about why that is.

For one, the bulk of the short stories I’ve read were the ones we’re forced to read in school, and therefore analyze to within a millimeter of their lives (what I think of as The Death Of A Thousand Cuts for any work of fiction).  So that’s strike one.  Whatever redeeming qualities there might have been were totally eradicated by mass education.

Most of them were by men because the traditional canon we’re forced to study in English class is very WASP dominated.  I freely admit I’m sexist on this point and I don’t tend to enjoy a lot of work written by men.  I find it boring.  This is not to say that all work by men sucks.   It doesn’t.  They just inherently tend not to focus on the things I like to read about. Not my cup of tea, and that’s fine.  But anyway, so yeah, strike two, the ones I’ve been exposed to were mostly not my bag to start with.

There is this tradition in short stories that is less prevalent now (I’m told) than it used to be that the focus of a short story was on the twist or the surprise rather than a legitimate resolution.

I find that totally unsatisfying as a reader.

I WANT a resolution.  I’m not reading to be surprised or have the rug pulled out from under me.  I’m reading for a resolution.  To see a hero face a problem and overcome it.  I don’t want some surprise ending where she or he dies.  I don’t want to be slapped in the face.  I want, if not a happy ending, at least to have everything tied up.

The happy ending thing is tricky.  By default I want one.  I’m a romance reader.  There is enough not happy ending in the real world.  But I think I’m more flexible on this point because these days a lot of the short stories I HAVE read and liked were shorts about characters that I either already know or want to get to know.  They illustrate a pivotal event, make me want to read more.  Or fill in some blanks.  They give me a gift as a reader.  

This idea of giving gifts to the reader is a big one for Susan, and one we talk about a lot.

Too often I’ve seen writers say, “I want to write a short story,” and they spew out a few thousand words in which…basically nothing happens.  It is, at best, a character sketch.  There’s no legitimate conflict, no resolution, nothing changes.  Which makes for a total snore of a read.

So when I say I don’t like short stories, this is what I’m talking about.  I am not averse to the concept of short, self contained stories.  But I expect it to be all the things I love about a novel on a small scale–character development, conflict, something that changes, and a satisfying resolution.  It is…the chocolate truffle of the fiction world as opposed to a full on bar of Godiva.  Bite sized and totally satisfying.  Which means that every single word has to do triple duty and good short stories are a crapton harder than longer work.

So when I say I don’t like short stories, I mean I don’t like MOST short stories because I think it’s something that most people DON’T do well.

That said, I am totally open to trying new ones!  If you have any recs for some GOOD paranormal romance or YA or steampunk or contemporary romance short stories, LAY EM ON ME!

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5 comments

  1. As a reader, I prefer novels, the longer the better. I have the same problems with short stories that you do. I want depth, not cleverness or a quick emotional jolt. But the craze for making everything shorter and faster has spawned thousands (maybe millions) of forgettable pieces by people who have no idea how to write. Flash fiction is almost always “flat fiction.” It starts nowhere and goes nowhere. It doesn’t even offer the pleasure of a chocolate truffle,

  2. You described this so well. I also don’t like the ending-on-a-gasp. I don’t mind a good twist; I just don’t want to leave off with a feeling that I’ve been duped throughout the story, only to have it all turn on me right at the end. That said, I can think of some wonderful classic short stories, such as The Gift of the Magi and The Veldt. I also wrote a short story coming out in an anthology (Orange Karen) this April. Yes, it resolves. I followed the same basic story structure as a novel (Story Engineering/Larry Brooks style), with few characters, no subplots, and more focused stakes.

  3. I like much of what appears in the Beneath Ceaseless Skies e-zine.

    Margo Lerwill’s UF short stories sound like what you’re looking for, as does Lindsay Buroker’s “Ice Cracker II”.

  4. I try to apply the same story structure and character development rules I use when I write a novel to the short stories I write. Not that I write many. And they are all genre stories (mysteries or sci-fi) with NO last gasp twists.

  5. Lot of good thoughts there, Kait. And clarified like you did, it makes total sense.

    I don’t like reading plotless junk any more than you do. ;) But I think that a well written short story can be fun. The tricky part is really packing a whole story arc into a much smaller number of words!

    For instance, you mentioned looking for romance short stories. All the tension and conflict of a romance, AND a HEA, packed into 6000 words? Ouch! I wouldn’t know where to begin!

    Twists can be fun, but usually only if they’re the sort of twist where you either see it coming for a good chunk of the story, or where you slap your head because you realize you *should* have seen it coming. The “out of left field” twist is deus ex machina, and as bad in short stories as it is in any other sort of tale.

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