On the Merits of Short Fiction

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

It’s a shame really, but after poetry, short fiction draws the shortest straw when it comes to widely read literature. It’s hard to say why, when short stories and first cousins like novellas and flash fiction are the ideal length for time-starved readers and writers. Just like meals made up of small plates or tapas, a reading and writing diet made up of short fiction gives us the unique opportunity to try savor old favorites while trying new things and embracing variety.

So why do short stories get the shaft? Writers love to pen them, but literary legend has it that they’re barely read, hard to publish and even harder to sell. Friends and family members, even literary agents will drone on about how they might not have any audience at all if it weren’t for required reading lists in high school and university English classes.

But this isn’t always and doesn’t have to be the case. Short stories are more than worthy of readers’ and writers’ time and energy. Or at least the well-written ones are, and as I’ve argued before, there’s plenty to learn from bad writing, too.

Beyond celebrated volumes of short fiction by the likes of Flannery O’Connor, O. Henry and Washington Irving, Readers can read new pieces by up-and-coming writers in publications like The New Yorker.

Reading Short Fiction

Novellas, short stories and flash fiction give readers a chance to explore a writer or a genre that they wouldn’t risk a novel-length endeavor on. For example, I’m not much on horror and am hard-pressed to dedicate the time and attention necessary to a full-length tome designed to give me bad dreams, especially if it’s not a celebrated classic along the lines of Dracula or The Shining. That said, I’m likely to give two to ten page tales of terror a chance.

Brief prose forces writers to produce their best work. When words are limited, they must be carefully, painstakingly chosen. This is true to such a degree that sometimes celebrated writer’s short stories far outshine their novels. Case en pointe: Harrison Bergeron in Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House. While I adore Vonnegut in general, and have more than a few favorites when it comes to his novels, nothing ever measures up to the power of the words and ideas in Harrison Bergeron for me.

Of course there’s a common misconception with short stories, as with poetry, that their brevity makes for a rapid-fire reading. In fact, the opposite is often true; a story stretching only a few pages demands our undivided attention and careful analysis in order come away from the reading with a full understanding and appreciation of the writer’s message. Site founder, Brandon Monk, discusses how to understand and deconstruct short stories and provides a handy worksheet to help in the process here.

Writing Short Fiction

Writers (beginners and pros alike) may just be better off keeping it short. At least when first developing an idea for fiction. Giving an idea a whirl, and trying to develop it to its fullest on a daily basis is a challenge that will hone and perfect your writing. Chuck Palahniuk takes a page out of Bradbury’s book and tries to write a short story daily. Sometimes those stories stand alone forever, and still others they’re linked and molded into lengthier works.

Besides, as a mostly long-form fiction writer, I’m here to say there’s something very satisfying and deeply encouraging about finishing something and sending it off to be considered by editors and publishers in a shorter time frame than a few months….or years.

3 Tips for Writing Your Best Short Fiction

  1. Set the scene as soon as possible, in a few vivid words. Leave the rest up to the reader’s imagination. Give them just enough detail to be grounded in your story’s world, and let their minds make up the rest.
  2. No idealistic heroes and heroines please. Near and full perfection has its place—in fairy tales, fables, and genre romance—in short stories where you demand your reader bond with your main characters in a tiny span of words, it’s best avoided like other literary plagues (clichés, excessive modifiers, and other no-nos I’m certainly guilty of).
  3. Introduce conflict, right away. It doesn’t have to be the main problem characters are facing, necessarily, but tension should start to build when the reader zeroes in your first few words. Note—sometimes what works is to let yourself meander to the conflict, and then raze your boring “intro.”

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Chris Ciolli is a Barcelona-based writer and translator. She’s an unabashed book worm and a bit of a coffee addict. She’s accepting new writing and translation clients. Look her up at ChrisCiolli.com.

3 Replies to “On the Merits of Short Fiction”

  1. I love short stories. I’m particularly baffled why novellas seem to have been ignored in recent years – some of the best books (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Heart of Darkness, etc) have been in novella format!

    1. I love Heart of Darkness, too. Actually, I think with e-book format, novella length works are coming back in a big way. Seems to be somewhat limited to genre and series, though.

  2. Harrison Bergeron? Really? Harrison Bergeron reads like a something hastily written by a high school student for a cheap C+ in English Composition. The writing style is juvenile at best.

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