Short stories as art and craft

Short stories in collections

Short stories fascinate and often delight both readers and writers. They can be compared to pieces of art or even to poems. All three capture a mood or an emotion that lingers long after you view, read or listen to them.

In the past, I’ve reviewed short stories, including ‘Killing Daniel’ and Everywhere I Look, both by Helen Garner, one of my favourite authors. But recently I rediscovered how much I enjoy short stories to the extent of binge-reading and finding new favourite authors.

Short story – definition

A short story, a distinct genre of literature, can be defined as

‘…a piece of prose fiction that typically can be read in one sitting and focuses on a self-contained incident or series of linked incidents, with the intent of evoking a “single effect” or mood.

Short Story (Wikepedia)

Novels and novellas, which also fall within the definition of prose fiction, range over a multitude of scenes, characters, incidents, moods, times and description. They vary in length upwards from about 15,000 words

Short stories, on the other hand, encapsulate a single idea or emotion usually within about 1000 to 4000 words.

Stand alone genre

Short stories focus our attention sharply. Because of their hallmark brevity and compression, the action must be clear and incisive. We can read a novel to escape from reality, but a short story prompts us to see, hear and think about an aspect of life in all its complexity.

People often mistakenly consider short story writing as the forerunner of novel writing. But the art and craft of short stories stands alone. Although many novelists also write them, it doesn’t mean they use the shorter form to practice their skills as novelists.

Rather, as they write and rewrite each piece, they become more expert, efficient and competent short story writers. They learn to hone the words and make them count. Every aspect matters in short fiction, unlike in longer forms where less perfect writing can hide.

Writers learn that a short story can be traditional, experimental or whatever they choose it to be. Nothing is out of bounds.

Short stories back in fashion

For many years, book publishers decided that this genre in book form was no longer fashionable. Meanwhile publishers of literary and popular journals and organisers of writing competitions kept the genre alive. They invited submissions from known and unknown short story writers.

Over the last decade or so, the attitude of publishers changed. Collections of short stories once again appeared on booksellers’s shelves and on short and long lists for literary awards.

Honesty in short stories

Short story writer use themes, action, dialogue, description and plot in much the same way as novelists and playwrights. They sometimes borrow the language of poets.

But the art of short story writing lies in the emotional honesty of the genre. Honest writing characteristically involves uniqueness, unexpectedness, consequences or impact, and the ability of the stimulus to trigger strong emotion.

The well-written short story not only entertains. It also provokes a visceral response because it touches on a universal emotion. As Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor, editors of 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories say, a short story ‘…is second to none in power and efficiency’.

I’m looking forward to reading many more collections and anthologies in the future. I’d value your recommendations of stories you’ve enjoyed.

2 replies on “Short stories as art and craft”

  1. Great overview Maureen. You teach us so many different things. Thank you 🙂

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