by Michele Lang
I adore short stories, love to both read them and write them. I believe we are in the middle of a short story renaissance, and as a reader I’m a happy beneficiary of the times.
However, writing the short story has mystified as well as bewitched me. As a novelist, for the longest time my short stories turned into partials when I wrote them. When I did manage to finish them, I struggled to bring them in under 10,000 words.
There’s a time-bending element to short stories, a magic about them. How do short story writers manage to compress a world of unforgettable characters, and a profound change in that world, in 5,000 or even 2,000 words?
I wanted to learn that magic for myself. For a solid year, I wrote shorts that read like chopped off first chapters of novels. While I loved the characters and their worlds, I didn’t have the skill to grant them a resolution, the chance of a life after the story. My poor characters just kind of dangled, waiting for what happened next, off-stage, after the end.
I knew I needed to learn more. But I couldn’t grasp the essential difference between a short story and a novel.
They aren’t miniature novels, so what are they?
Last year, at an anthology workshop on the Oregon Coast, I got some advice from Denise Little, a brilliant editor, and she clarified the mystery for me. She told me to think in terms of musical composition:
A short story is like an instrumental solo;
A novella is like a duet between two instruments, say a viola and a flute;
And a novel is a fully orchestrated concerto, with a tripartite structure, complex harmonies, and a contained aesthetic.
A short story won’t tell you all about its world – it can’t. It can’t tie up all the loose ends, it can’t tell you the backstory of all the major characters. The major characters don’t overcome and transform essential flaws in their natures. There’s no room for all of that.
What a short story will do, in fact does do better than a novel, is portray a window into a moment. It captures the essential truth in the music of a single life. It’s a song sung without backup instruments, it’s a hymn, or a lullaby. And a short story can linger in your memory as long and as vividly as any novel.
Stephen King once said (and I’m paraphrasing) that a novel is like a marriage while a short story is a kiss in the dark from a stranger. And yet, there are kisses that reach across memory and transcend time, to change you forever.
And that is why I love short stories.
Michele Lang writes supernatural tales: the stories of witches, lawyers, goddesses, bankers, demons, and other magical creatures hidden in plain sight. She is the author of the LADY LAZARUS historical fantasy trilogy (Tor).
Learn more about Michele on her website.