11 NOVEMBER 2015
The Short Story
The short story is one of my favourite literary forms. I love reading novels and can think of nothing nicer than having enough time to just read one without taking many breaks until it’s finished, but of course this isn’t what usually happens. A novel will stretch over several days or weeks, even for the quick and dedicated reader. The short story, though, can usually be read in one go, so that one has all the satisfaction of a complete and intense experience.
There are many different kinds of short story and I’m going to try to point out some of the main features of the different kinds. First, I’m not talking about short novels, sometimes called novellas, but rather the complete text which may be only one page long, but is usually several pages. In the hands of a fine writer, the brevity of the story doesn’t seem a limitation, and it can be astonishing how much is suggested in a few pages.
The beginning of a short story can be like a play, quickly giving an exposition - explaining some facts about the main character and her/his situation, using a narrative point of view, either third or first person. For example, ‘Mr Brown had worked at the company for forty years, but this was his last day’ or ‘I had agreed to marry Jack only a few weeks ago and today was the day. I wondered if we should have waited longer.’ Or perhaps these important facts will only emerge on the second page of the story or later, what is known as ‘in media res’, a useful Latin phrase meaning ‘in the middle of things’. Some writers use what’s known as a ‘framing device’ - they create a narrator who introduces someone else who tells the story and at the end it returns to the narrator, so a kind of frame to the action is given, with the narrator often making some wise observation about the events.
Broadly speaking, with regard to endings, there is a difference between those stories which have a plot and end in a way which finishes the events neatly or dramatically, even having what is known as a ‘twist’ or sudden surprise at the very end; and those which offer a more ambiguous ending to a story in which the theme of the story has been revealed gradually. These sometimes don’t really have a plot as such but are often exploring characters and their feelings. They may use a symbol to express an important insight about a character’s life, or a change of point of view, creating irony.
I’m going to end by giving you some examples of well-known short-story writers. For an outstanding writer who can say more in her short stories than many second rate novelists can in a whole book, try the contemporary Canadian writer Alice Munro who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. Her work is notable for being able to move backwards and forwards in time to give immense depth to her insight on human lives. Katherine Mansfield, a Modernist writer in the early 20th century, uses symbols and imagery very effectively in her stories. The 19th Century French writer Guy de Maupassant, whose stories have all been translated into English, writes many stories with a twist or surprise at the end, as does the American O’Henry, writing at a similar time. You may have heard of Edgar Allen Poe’s 19th Century Gothic stories too, such as 'The Fall of the House of Usher.' A writer who is very economical with words but very suggestive is Raymond Carver, the American 20th century short story expert. I hope you can find some of their stories and will enjoy exploring them!
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