Years ago, back when I was a teenager, I read Stephen King’s short story collection Skeleton Crew. While I can vaguely recall some of the stories, the things that sticks in my mind to this day is something from his introduction:
‘Reading a long novel is in many ways like having a long and satisfying affair…a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.’
Whenever I think about short stories, these lines come to mind. While I prefer novels, I still enjoy short stories (both reading and writing them), and King’s quote seems to sum up much of the attraction—that brief moment of enjoyment, a few minutes of escapism stolen from the business of the day.
But I feel it’s worth exploring the pull of short stories in more detail. As both a reader and a writer, why is short fiction important?
Sometimes, in our busy lives, it is hard to find the time a novel demands. After a long day, maybe we don’t have the mental energy to delve into complex fictional worlds. We need something shorter—a quick fix. And here, short stories come into their own.
Shorts are different to novels, and not only in length. Often, they focus on one, maybe two characters, so we do not have to keep track of all those (often very interesting) side-characters who appear in novels. Due to their brevity, they start right in the action, and there is none of the detailed world-building and stage-setting that appears in novels. Although a well-written short will contain world-building, it will happen in a couple of sentences rather than a couple of chapters.
Then there are the endings. Some shorts are all about the twist at the end, the few thousand words a set-up for the dark punch-line. Others leave things unexplained, planting the seeds for our own minds to complete the story at our leisure. And others provide the ‘complete’ story experience—there are questions, but all is resolved at the end. The Sherlock Holmes stories are fine example of this, where Holmes patiently explains to Watson exactly what’s been going on.
These kind of stories are like puzzles, with the solution at the end. They provide us not only entertainment, but also a brief period of mental exercise as we attempt to solve the mystery before the master detective does.
From a writer’s perspective, short stories can be like puzzles too—attempting to provide a satisfying story experience with limited words is in many ways harder than allowing ideas to expand to novel length. But they can also be a respite from the long slog of producing a novel. When we start to flag on our latest long-form project, we can break off and work on a short story. Maybe we see that short through to completion—planning, writing and editing the story—and this can reinvigorating our enthusiasm. After writing our short story, we can dive back into that novel.
That Little Bit More
Sometimes there are even events in novels that are brushed over, maybe hinted at but never fully explained. There are usually perfectly legitimate reasons for this—taking a detour would derail the momentum of the main story, or delving into backstory might lead to a longer novel than we wished for. But as writers it is useful to know these missing details. We want our characters to be real, and that means they should have lives beyond the pages. Short stories are great for exploring different aspects of the characters we, as writers, invent.
And sometimes, readers want to know this extra information as well. We want to read more about a favourite character, or we want to experience the story world in greater depth.
Tolkien is a great example of this. There is The Hobbit, and there is The Lord Of The Rings. They are complete in themselves, and can be enjoyed just as they are. But Tolkien’s world-building is incredibly detailed, and there are a plethora of extra writings (Unfinished Tales, The Silmarillion and so on) that allow the reader to delve even further into the myths an history of Middle Earth.
But it doesn’t have to be this involved. Stephen Donaldson, when he was writing his first Thomas Covenant trilogy, initially had a whole chapter from another character’s point of view. It didn’t work with the rest of the book, but Donaldson didn’t want it to disappear totally, so he released it as a separate story, Gilden-Fire.
A Chance To Explore
And this leads on to another aspect of short stories—they give us a chance to explore.
This can come in many forms. As a reader, it can mean trying new authors, maybe with stories in an anthology or with free (or at least cheap) stories available to download. Maybe you’ve enjoyed one book by a particular author, but aren’t yet convinced their other books will be for you—so you try a short story, to see if that first book was a one-off or if their writing does resonate with you. Or maybe you’re unsure about a whole genre, but you want to give it a go. You could dive straight in with a novel, but that costs hours of time. Far safer to try something shorter, and then move on to a novel if you get on with the short.
As a writer, short fiction can be used as training, or working on craft. Short stories provide the writer with a space in which to experiment. This might mean writing with a different viewpoint, for instance trying first person (‘I did this’) instead of third person (‘she did this’). Or maybe you experiment with tenses (‘they did this’ becomes ‘they do this’).
I’ve used short stories to experiment in other ways. I’ve done a couple that are pure dialogue (and I’ll probably try one that is a monologue at some point). I’ve tried writing a story in the style of a report. I’ve also played with other genres, like fantasy and espionage.
And if these experiments don’t work, and the short story is not good enough to be released, then that need not be seen as a failure. It’s not time wasted. It’s all learning, even if the only thing the writer learns is that they cannot (yet) work in that particular style. It’s no different to a musician trying a different instrument or alternative styles of music.
Think of a musician like Prince. He continually worked on songs, and his vaults contain thousands of unreleased songs. I’m sure their quality varies, from ‘classic’ material to tracks that would push the patience of many fans. But all of them are important, not for how they worked out, but for what Price learnt in the process of producing them.
Brandon Sanderson wrote something like six novels before he started trying to find an agent and a publisher, and I believe he sees those novels as a kind of training—he had to write that much before he was good enough to write something worthy of release. For most writers, there are one or two ‘trunk novels’—those books we write that we know should never see the light of day. But we have to learn. We have to develop.
And that development is on-going. Short stories provide a way to do that without taking large swathes of time away from writing novels.
Maybe, for some fans and analysts, these unpublished short stories do provide value. Maybe, for someone who wants to not only enjoy stories but also to understand their development, experimental shorts provide an insight into the mind and the workings of authors. Maybe they contain seeds that later bore fruit.
The Birth Of Ideas
And that leads to the final thing I want to say about short fiction—they are a breeding ground for ideas. Sometimes, my shorts start with a rough idea, and I just write whatever comes into my head. This is usually pretty messy, but when I go back over it, ideas start to develop. Maybe ninety percent of the words are cut, but that remaining ten percent provides the basis for something far better. It’s as if the idea that will work is hidden away, and the only way to release it is to let the words flow.
And sometimes, a short story can provide an idea for a novel, maybe a whole series. Harry Harrison is an example of this. Way back in 1957, his story The Stainless Steel Rat appeared in a magazine. Three years later, another story based on the same character came out. Then Harrison reworked these stories, with new material, into the novel The Stainless Steel Rat. But the character of Slippery Jim demanded more, and Harrison wrote more novels. And it all started from a short story.
Short stories—those kisses in the dark—can be sweet and thrilling for what they are. But they can also develop. They can lead to relationships with new authors, or grow into stories that envelop us. They can be of the moment, or the moment when things start.
But you never know what will happen until you start. And that is why I’ll continue to both write and read short stories.
And I’ll finish with another quote, this time from Neil Gaiman, someone who continues to produce imaginative fiction of different lengths:
A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick—a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.