A story – a tale, a narrative, an account, an anecdote.
A short story – a tale, a fable, a novella, a parable.
I love to read short stories. My all time favorites are:
The Necklace- Guy de Maupassant
The Lady With The Pet Dog- Anton Chekhov
The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze- William Saroyan
A Clean Well Lighted Place- Ernest Hemingway
The Happy Prince- Oscar Wilde
Maupassant and Chekhov are perhaps the greatest short story writers of them all. Paul Roche called them the twin pillars of the short story.
The short story is many things but first and foremost it is just a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. The premise of any short story is one line that contains three things, character, conflict, resolution. Someone once said that the biggest mistake is to believe that the short story is a condensed novel. In the words of Andre Dubus:
“A novel is about an entire world but a short story is about one thing.”
A short story must be as compact as possible- characters reduced to the minimum; situation, time, and action all concentrated and clean-cut. A short story tells what happened to the characters who are involved, over a chronological period of time.
“Any fiction should be a story. In any story there are three elements: persons, a situation, and the fact that in the end something has changed. If nothing has changed, it isn’t a story.” Malcolm Cowley
Every short story no matter how good or how bad should have some sort of message that can be summed up in one simple sentence. You cannot have a story where nothing happens, just as you cannot have a story with no characters in it.
As my writing instructor would say; “It is not what you say that makes a good story but how you say it. In order to do that you have to do that you have to do three things- Stop! Look! Listen!”
In order to be able to observe you have to have a certain outlook towards everything around you. You must be prepared to think and experience things differently. You must not only look at things with a writer’s eye, but also develop a certain attitude- a writer’s attitude. As Freud says:
“Art hallucinates Ego mastery.”
You must make the best of every situation you find yourself in. You must turn everything life throws in your face into an opportunity to create good fiction. On this topic I would like to share a story that I read long ago, that of John Howard Griffin- ‘From Boy To Writer In One Night’.
“I was a student living in a tiny attic room in Tours, France. It was a winter afternoon and I was huddled before a small stove reading an announcement about Kirsten Flagstad’s coming Paris performance in Tristan and Isolde. It was to be a single gala appearance and a friend had told me that this was something I shouldn’t miss. I got out my savings and began to figure. If I went third-class, and bought the cheapest ticket I had just enough to go: but not enough to buy a meal or get a room. Going to Paris would mean a night under a bridge or in a doorway and a day without food. I had never done anything like this. I was far from adventurous then; I was a studious scientist. The whole idea horrified me. But I knew if I didn’t go, I might regret it all my life. I decided to go.
After the opera, which was magnificent, I faced a cold and night in a strange city with nothing in my pocket except a return ticket to Tours. I was hungry and cold and had no idea where to turn. I began walking and looking for some place to shelter me from the weather.
When I was to give up, I saw a chestnut vendor folding up his roasting-stand for the night. I went up to him and asked where a man “without a sou” could sleep. He told me of a place called the Cour de Rohan, a thirteenth century sector across the river from Notre Dame. He explained that the old quarters were for the poor, that the doors were never closed, and that I could probably sleep under the stairwell without being disturbed.
He gave me a sack of hot chestnuts to warm my hands and we walked together to the narrow passageway leading onto the cour.
“Enter any of the doors,” he said, and left. I tried a couple of the doors which were so low I had to stoop to look in. The air inside was fetid. At the third door, I decided they would all smell the same, so I entered and felt for the stairway. I walked around behind it and forced myself to stretch out on the grimy flagstone floor.
For a time I was acutely aware of my discomfort, of the hardness and filth of the floor, of the chill that crept in under my clothes. I was desolate, lonely and somewhat frightened. The opera was forgotten; I was totally absorbed in my misery.
But slowly, another feeling aroused me from my self-preoccupation. It occurred to me that all of this was interesting, I began to detach myself from my discomfort, and as I did so, I realized that that this was an experience worth having- or rather, one that would someday be worth having had.”