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Short Story Theory (1 Viewer)

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EternalGreen

Senior Member
I've been told that I often have way too much going on in my short stories.

The orthodox consensus is that a short story should: 1) focus on one main event, 2) involve a limited cast, 3) be told through a single point of view.

I don't know why I insisted on rebelling against this. It got me nowhere.

(If there are speculative elements, they should be introduced at the very beginning.)

Let's go over "Rip Wan Winkle" by Washington Irving.

A man goes on a hunting trip into the Catskill mountains, mets a company of dutch settlers, drinks from their flagon, and sleeps twenty years. He wakes up and discovers how he and the world have both changed.

The story is packed with luxuriant descriptions and characterizations that seem almost dead-end; but the actual plot is appropriately simple. You can also find a great deal of atmospheric and chilling foreboding. It's quite long for a short story (by today's standards) at nearly 8,000 words; but it feels quite brief for the reasons I have mentioned.
 

luckyscars

WF Veterans
I find a good way to think of short stories is a little bit like constructing a (long) joke.

The basic principles are the same: A single scene (you can have more than one 'scene' in a short story but they would need to be fairly short), a single point of view (I tend to die on this bridge, short stories with multiple points of view almost never seem to work), no more than 2 significant characters and probably no more than four or five total characters (excluding bystanders).

The most critical similarity is that both short stories and jokes tend to have a single 'point' or 'punchline' toward which the entire story needs to be built toward. You can argue that in the abstract that's true for novels as well, but novels tend to function in more of an arc, with a resolution that occurs mostly or entirely 'on the page'.

Short stories tend to be far more ambiguous, far more 'shocking', more based on the idea of ending on a question rather than answer(s). There is far less requirement to resolve in a short story HOWEVER the 'resolution' still needs to be there in an implied sense.

A good example of this in motion is something like The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (considered one of the best short stories in American fiction, and free!). In The Lottery the story is simple: There's a weirdo small town where the people have a weirdo ritual involving an annual lottery used to choose somebody to stone to death. The story is pretty much an exploration of the idea of how this works and what it means. The story ends with...

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. "It isn't fair," she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, "Come on, come on, everyone." Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.

"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

This isn't the kind of ending you can get away with easily in a novel. Imagine reading 400 pages and this is the payoff! But in a short story it works because often the idea is to end on a question, not an answer.
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
I guess this makes sense. One of my favourite short stories, "The Story of a Panic" by E.M.Forster, has lots of luxuriant detail, a small cast, and one POV (though I must admit it is "quite dreadfully colonial" in places). Ditto "The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood. Then again, these are older. I've not read that many newer short stories.
 

JJBuchholz

Senior Member
The orthodox consensus is that a short story should: 1) focus on one main event, 2) involve a limited cast, 3) be told through a single point of view.

4) It's your story, you decide how to tell it. Why write inside someone else's 'box' when you don't have to?

Be yourself, write what you know, and put your heart into it.

-JJB
 

EmmaSohan

WF Veterans
My short stories always focus on one thing. That's really vague, but that's the way I think of it. What if someone lived their life by deciding what to do with a coin flip? Santa deciding what to do now that the North Pole is melting.

For a 750-word limit, it's really easy to focus. But I think I do that with even longer short stories. What if a teen has a second personality posting erotic pictures of herself on the internet? That one was 9K. One supposed short story took me 40K to tell.
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
a short story should: 1) focus on one main event, 2) involve a limited cast, 3) be told through a single point of view.

No rules, no rules, no rules!

Okay, those can often be useful guidelines, but you can always stray from them if you have a reason to. Write it the way you do because... , not just for the heck of it, that probably won't work.
 

Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
Reading promising voices in new genres is something I am trying and I hope writers don't stick to one genre. I got a fantasy idea and plan to write it once I get home. Science fiction is difficult to write for me even though I have been writing it for a long time. That and going to rewrite a short story based on a literary classic I read on which I won't say which one for the time being. I think that will help me a lot to see if it it is finally published. That's because my sense fiction is idea driven and I need to make it more character based.

I think even Borges's work is something I'd want to try to read and study. He wrote short stories and became famous for them despite not penning any novels I know off from the top of my head.

If you want a book that explains the single effect of one event. I recommend rust hill's book on short story theory. It won't inspire you. But it can help you know more on things such epiphanies which is worth it. James Joyce recorded in a notebook more than 70 epiphanies supposedly. This literary theory is useful. It's specifically written focused on the short story. If you want an answer to that question it will have to wait until I manage to find where I put it.

I own it on paperback. I plan looking up my copy not to buy it on kindle.

Since I am not at home. I won't be able to find my copy. I return tommorow, and my house has a couple of books stored inside some large boxes.
 
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Theglasshouse

WF Veterans
IMO this is the best part of the book since I am interested in psychological or sociological motivation. This doesn't get better. Here is what he says on the short story and selection. But imo this isnt a guide on how to write short stories but on literary criticism and is on the short story specifically:

To make them aware how the incident does affects the character. Describe an older person you know fairly well. The general situation and personality and pattern of life-roughly in ways that are psychological or sociological rather than literary-and then try to figure out or even just guess how the other person came to be that way, what happened to him that made my way. It is necessary to imagine back to an earlier time of the subject might have been different, but he was capable of becoming some other way than the way he is now-and then provide incident that took him past the other possibilities. Take an aunt or uncle for instance...

Selection and plot. You will usually find that what happened is composed of not just one episode but of a number of them and even if a story can be told in one sustained episode you must submit some of what goes on. He won’t for instance just to be more about it but describe each time his character goes to the bathroom unless he has some special reason for doing so to show stress for instance.

Edgar Allan Poe spoke of the short story as providing a single and unique effect for which everything contributes. If the author’s initial sentence tend not to the upbringing of this effect. That he has failed in his first step. Little habits like for example what he or she carried in pockets may be as revealing as the big things like the attitude assumed when talking with the boss). These are fixed actions. People are doing things all the time when the same way every time. The key thing about these actions is that they are repeated indeed, the fact that they are done over and over is what makes them significant and revealing.

Rust hills:
Writing in General and the short story in particular.
 
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TheManx

Senior Member

Just wondering. I really couldn't tell anyone how to write a short story -- wouldn't even try. I suppose there are some vague things that make most short stories work, but there are just too many variables. All I know is I've read a tons of them, and I think that implants something subconsciously that tells me if something is working or not. I'm not saying it can't be done, but I know people who try to write short stories and they haven't read many or any at all -- that seems like shooting yourself in the foot. :)
 
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bazz cargo

Retired Supervisor
You ever watch Red dwarf? Every episode seem to amble along yet the content is packed. I have seen long films with less content. (Yes Star Trek, I am looking at you). The true focus of any story, especially a short story, is character. If your character is... real and interesting enough to suspend the critical part of the readers brain. With something to deal with. You have a winner.
Good luck
I've been told that I often have way too much going on in my short stories.

The orthodox consensus is that a short story should: 1) focus on one main event, 2) involve a limited cast, 3) be told through a single point of view.

I don't know why I insisted on rebelling against this. It got me nowhere.

(If there are speculative elements, they should be introduced at the very beginning.)

Let's go over "Rip Wan Winkle" by Washington Irving.

A man goes on a hunting trip into the Catskill mountains, mets a company of dutch settlers, drinks from their flagon, and sleeps twenty years. He wakes up and discovers how he and the world have both changed.

The story is packed with luxuriant descriptions and characterizations that seem almost dead-end; but the actual plot is appropriately simple. You can also find a great deal of atmospheric and chilling foreboding. It's quite long for a short story (by today's standards) at nearly 8,000 words; but it feels quite brief for the reasons I have mentioned.
 
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