Writing fiction has been my passion for decades and took hold when I was home raising my children. It was a time when women’s magazines, Redbook, McCalls, were printing short stories written by women. I could do this! So I set my desk in a corner of the den, bought a decent electric typewriter and before my children awoke each morning, I squirreled away an hour to craft some stories.
Not surprisingly, the strength of my stories increased when I rooted them in the emotions and conflicts of my own life. I published some in little magazines, later moving on to novel writing.
Retirement has allowed me to make writing my focus and to polish everything in my writer’s toolbox. Short stories stem from a reader’s desire to experience the rise and fall of the story arc in one sitting. Nathaniel Hawthorne published his collection of Twice Told Tales in 1837, probably the first known book of short stories—though not all of them were short!
Prior to this, in 1836, Charles Dickens found great success when he serialized in magazines and newspapers his novel The Pickwick Papers. Critics have said that at that time there was no insinuation that the work would lose quality when presented in so commercial a fashion—that came later. Dickens’ work was popular and thus must have affected the rise of shorter pieces of fiction.
Then and today it can be very satisfying to experience a character’s struggle right through to the denouement in a short period of time. Our life styles—working men and women, tired at the end of the day, a list of to-dos drumming in one’s head—has added more credence to the experience of completing a story in one sitting—or rather, propped up on pillows in bed. Short work fills a need. When creating a short story, the writer works with the same elements that make up a novel—but there is some tweaking.
The story will most often have one main character who is also the POV character—you experience the story through the eyes of this character. In my story collection, A Mother’s Time Capsule, the average number of characters in each story is three—most interactions occurring between two of the three. My longer stories have four or five characters, the POV character encountering the others briefly. The longest story, Angel Hair, based on the old tale in Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper, has as many as eight characters. A writer could create a short story simply using one character. Length: that is up for debate, ranging from . 30,000 words to 10,000. There is also flash fiction and other newly created forms that can be as short as 500 words. The shorter the more difficult.
Short stories are not only limited to characters but also to passage of time, while novels often span years, even decades. My stories Pumpkins, Thaw, Windows and Making Change take place on the same day—though to enrich content, there are references to the past. When Did My Mother Die? takes place over a year’s time—but the trajectory of the story moves in a straight line.
Plot is essential even in short fiction, and focus must be endemic. Get in and get out. But regardless of its short length, writing the short story is not simple. I can speak directly to this dilemma as some of my stories were taken from novels in progress. Someday It Will Be December required lots of editing and rethinking of the material to create the emotional arc the story demands. The first sentence has to grab the reader: In the depths of July, Claire Emmerling began to think about sex. Constantly.
Or from Angel Hair: The coffee gathering at Liz Grimm’s house was the first time anyone had been out in the small New England town of Hamilton since Pia Piper was fired from the local preschool, accused of fondling a boy-child in her classroom.
In Thaw, I use a quieter beginning that will build to the heartfelt emotions of the story:Her landlord said maybe she’d imagined it. She doesn’t think so. They argued about the age of the townhouse, the condition of the roof. She was late for her shift and had to hang up. “You’re the one with squirrels in your attic,” he had yelled at her.
Endings? They tantalize, inspire or make you weep. Endings are part of the reason I fell in love with the short story form. In high school, I read J.D. Salinger and John Cheever. After college, it was Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Bobbie Ann Mason and Raymond Carver—they all published in The New Yorker Magazine.
In a novel, lots of things happen—often because of a complicated plot structure with twists and turns the reader does not expect. In the short story, something has to happen, or at the very least you have to feel that something has happened, though often it’s a small movement, a brief change, a symbolic gesture. But the brevity of the text reflects a smallness that in actual living is truly gigantic, monumental. Ann Beattie in Running Dreams, leads you into a world with few words—but at the end—wow! The soccer-punch. The narrator reflects on losing her father to cancer when she was only five. This is the last paragraph—the father is bending over in pain, to help put on his daughter’s gloves.
I remember standing with him in a room that seemed immense to me at the time, in sunlight as intense as the explosion from a flashbulb. If someone had taken that photograph, it would have been a picture of a little girl and her father about to go on a walk. I held my hands out to him, and he pushed the fingers of the gloves tightly down each of my fingers, patiently, pretending to have all the time in the world, saying, “This is the way we get ready for winter.”
This is so lovely, the main character finding closure in this simple remembrance of her father’s love. I surveyed the endings in A Mother’s Time Capsule and discovered that I often use a symbolic action to pull the story to its closure. In Someday It Will Be December, Claire is uncertain about being a single mother. The ending finds her lost in a place she is familiar with: But she raised her head and walked on. She would reorient herself. She would find her way.In Fragile, Tess is a fearful mother. The ending: Tess stops. She listens, the words of her children falling on her with their weight of wonder. And welcoming all of it, she holds them, keeps them like a charm her two have hung gently around her neck.
Though novel endings are often muscular and dramatic, short stories present the conclusion using a quieter voice, though you know and feel that something profound has truly happened. Happy Reading.
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