I think the short story is quite a brutal form for the writer to operate in. As human beings we deplore cognitive dissonance and we want to see all loose ends tied up, especially if we have invested time in reading a piece of work. But writers I know take a different view of the short story. One established writer I know sees writing a commissioned short story as a quick way to make money, and others (and I include my past self in this category) have seen the short story as a mere training ground. A place to test out, on the page, how we as writers can create plot, atmosphere and characters and try to bring them to some resolution. A nursery slope before we tackle the mountain of the novel-form. But I now think this view underplays the value of the short story.
Trying to set down the component parts of what makes a decent story, in about 2000 words, is hard to do. So if you see the short story as a training ground for the prose writer you are on a tough quest. You have so little space to offer characterisation. You have, at best, a few lines to describe a given character. That therefore means that those lines have to be shining, evocative, and intense enough to leave a lasting impression on the reader. In a novel, you can have a whole scene dedicated just to showing us details of a character. Not so in short-form fiction. Just as a football team relies upon the goalkeeper, midfielder, centre forwards all playing their own distinct roles well to put in a good team effort, so too, technically speaking, do the characterisation, plot and atmosphere need to synch up well to make what we could call a complete story.
In recent years I have developed my view of what a short story can achieve. Earlier this year I read Vermilion Sands, a collection of short stories by JG Ballard. Ballard is the most ambitious, nuanced, bold and intelligent writer I’ve so far read. What he achieves in this collection is astounding. The short stories are all set in a glamorous desert resort designed to cater to peoples’ most exotic whims. Throughout the collection, as we walk through Ballard’s mental furniture in each story, we encounter forgotten movie queens, plants that sing arias, sculptors who shape clouds, and houses that adapt to their owner’s moods. Ballard here uses the short story to ‘guess that the future will be like.’ He uses these series of short stories in order to create a utopia, a place in which he would like to live, and he also uses them to suggest a way forward for society. To signpost our way to a more sensual future. The short story allows him to use different characters to focus on different facets of this world- the parts of this world that engage the ears, eyes, mouths and noses of the character, which this world allows them to indulge. As a collection, this world is mapped out in full. A novel, which usually requires only one main character- at most two- would not have allowed him to do this.
To those who see the short story as a quick way to make a buck, or a training ground for the novel (and I address my younger self there) I would direct them to this collection to see just what the short story can achieve. One short story can achieve a great deal.
So my conclusion? I think the short story offers a proposition. Even if the story seems resolved, it is a story that can leave the reader with questions, rather than resolving all the issues that the set-up can offer. It is not, like the novel, a means to answer a question. But the proposition you offer, as Ballard shows us, can be detailed ones. In which case, surely we can achieve a lot with a short story?
Guy Mankowski, OCA Tutor.
Featured Image: Helen Rosemier