Last time, ahead of 28 Plays Later in February, I tried to give a short definition of what a play is and how we can know that we’ve written one. This time, ahead of our June challenge, Like The Prose, I thought I’d do a similar thing with short stories.
Where a play may, for the most part, have some visual tools to help identify it, defining a short story is much more complicated. In fact, many have tried in the past, and I’m sure many more will continue to debate it.
Let me start by repeating my disclaimer from last time: my entire practice has always been about challenging conventions and questioning definitions – TLC was set-up so writers could explore why they do what they do and see if they can do it differently. So I would implore anyone reading this to take it as a starting point to explore what story-writing means to them. By no means do I think that what I’m saying is the “truthful” or “correct” answer.
So what is a short story?
We can normally recognise a short story as being a piece of prose (i.e. not poetry, nor drama) shorter and more condensed than a novel. Edgar Allen Poe said that it should be read in a “single sitting,” although, who knows what a single seating even means.
So in my attempt for definition, I would like to focus on 4 elements:
A common attribute to many short stories is a unity in time, space and characters, i.e. focus on one person, at one moment in time and in one place.
A short story tends to focus on one aspect of the story: a simple and linear plot (conflict, climax, resolution), or a study of a character or a focus on creating an atmosphere.
The short story lends itself to experimenting with the style of writing in a way that a novel doesn’t allow you to do, as it may be too long to sustain an experimental concept. So it’s a great place to try out a different style or hone in on your style.
A vital element to consider is pacing. When writing a novel, the writer is able to indulge and take a long time, and when writing flash fiction they need to reach the ending quickly, but a short story paces itself somewhere in the middle.
You may have noticed that I didn't include length as a characteristic, as I’ve always found the idea of word-count to be a frustrating way to define literature. The fact that there’s no consensus on word count proves that. Some say it’s between 1,000-20,000, but for others, anything over 7,500 is a novella. You can find flash fiction that is up to 500 words and micro fiction that is up to 100, and the newly created Twitterature that is up to 280 characters, but famously, there is a short story (often misattributed to Hemingway) that is only 6 words long. Therefore, personally, I would not use word count as a defining tool.
So that’s the general and very basic answer to the question “what is a short story?” as for the question “what is a good short story?”, well, that’s a whole other story…