by John M. Floyd
One of my many faults (along with video late charges and homemade cinnamon rolls and naps during sermons) is that I buy too many books about writing. How-to books, I guess you’d call them. I have more than hundred, last time I counted, in my home library. Why do I like them? Well, I want to learn “how to,” I suppose. Also, I just enjoy reading the opinions of others who are smarter than I am (picture here the teeming multitudes) on the subject of writing fiction. And especially short fiction.
What follows is a collection of definitions and observations, from my many how-to-write books and elsewhere, regarding short stories. Most of these, I think, are pretty interesting, some are helpful . . . and a few are real jewels.
Words from the wise (or at least the experienced):
Jeffery Deaver: “Short stories are like a sniper’s bullet. Fast and shocking.”
Loren Estleman: “The short story is to the novel what the exquisite miniature is to the sprawling mural.”
Margaret Lucke (Writing Great Short Stories) says her two dictionaries define a short story as “the telling of a happening or a series of connecting events” and “a narrative designed to interest, amuse, or inform the hearer or reader.”
Orson Scott Card: “Ideally, a short story is an indivisible unit — every sentence in it points to the single climax that fulfills the entire work.”
Jack Bickham: “The [short story] writer wants to do more than look at a frozen point in time (which is almost what a vignette does); he wants to develop a moving event or series of events that arouses curiosity about ‘how things are going to turn out.’”
Sharon Sorenson (How to Write Short Stories): A short story . . .tells about imaginary events that happen to imaginary people, and the events lead to a crisis which is resolved at the end.”
Poe said a short story is “a story brief enough to be read at one sitting.”
Robert Gorham Davis: “A story asks a question: ‘What is it like being that kind of person, going through that kind of an experience?’ — and then answers it.”
Rick Demarinis (The Art and Craft of the Short Story): “A short story at its best is a pivotal moment in a life.”
A technical, and less philosophical, definition: “A short story is a piece of fiction less than about 20,000 words.” (I don’t remember where I heard that, but I’m tempted to agree. On the one hand, a 20K story is a long one, not a short one, and has actually tiptoed over into novella territory — but I’ve sold a couple of stories between 14,000 and 18,000 words and they were still called shorts by the places that published them.)
Elizabeth Lyon (A Writer’s Guide to Fiction): “Short stories are not miniature novels, any more than TV episodes are feature films. A short story is complete unto itself.”
Stephen Vincent Benet: What is a short story? “Something that can be read in an hour and remembered for a lifetime.”
Hitchcock: “A good story is life with the dull parts taken out.”
Estleman again: “If it manages to stir readers while leaving them perplexed as to its meaning, and if you can finish it in one or two sittings without immediate need for a chiropractor, it’s a successful short story.”
And our own James Lincoln Warren, in his column a few weeks ago: “The short story is not there to be lived in, like a great novel, but to be visited for a special fleeting moment.”
In closing, I think my favorite short-story observation was made by Alice Munro: “This is not a golfer on a practice tee. This is a gymnast in a plain black leotard, alone on a bare floor, outperforming all the novelists with their flashy costumes and whips and elephants and tigers.”
I like that picture.