This week's guest blog post is from Stuart Jaffe. Stuart's the author of the short story collection, 10 Bits of My Brain (Smashwords | Kindle | Nook), as well as numerous other short stories, most recently appearing in Bull Spec and the anthology, In An Iron Cage. He is also a co-contributer to the non-fiction book, How To Write Magical Words: A Writer`s Companion. He is a regular contributor to MagicalWords.net, a fantasy writing blog, as well as the co-host of The Eclectic Review - a podcast about science, art, and well, everything. For those who keep count, the latest animal listing is as follows: five cats, one albino corn snake, one Brazilian black tarantula, three aquatic turtles, one tortoise, assorted fish, two lop-eared rabbits, eleven chickens, and a horse. Thankfully, the chickens and the horse do not live inside the house.
And as well as all that, Stuart's found time to write the tenth guest blog In Defence of Short Stories. Ten already? How time flies when you're defending a literary form.
Take it away Stuart...
There are many wonderful aspects to short stories, many of which have been presented in the previous entries to this series. So for this post, I thought I'd focus on something that I think is best served in short stories - the power-packed sentence. Writers of short stories know all about this, but readers may not consciously be aware of it even as it weaves a spell upon them.
Basically, because a writer has limited space to tell a complete story, he must make every word work in his favor. When writing novels, this is not the case. It's still important in a novel not to waste words, but the sprawling length of the work allows a writer to meander through a scene, a plot point, a character description, etc. In a short story, such meandering will quickly bring the writer against the word limits of a publishing venue. Plus, as an art form, they are called short stories for a reason! To illustrate my point, I'm going to use the opening line to "Bone Magic" - the first story in my ebook collection 10 Bits of My Brain. I'm using this line because I wrote it, so I can guarantee the analysis I'll present is accurate and not just my hypothesis. Here's the line:
Bad enough he had to suffer the
ghetto and the Nazis, but dealing with his grandmother made Andrzej Vashem
consider the benefits of a bullet through the head. Lublin
That first line is packed. We learn the character's name - Andrzej Vashem; we learn the character's sex - male (not a given for many readers unfamiliar with the name); we learn the time and location -- Lublin ghetto, roughly somewhere between 1939-1941 (not too much later into WWII and the ghettos had been cleared out); we know Andrzej as a grandmother that is a lot to contend with; we know Andrzej suffers, that life is bad (even before we read the word Nazi), and that he is in a foul state of mind (thinking either literally or with morose humor about taking a bullet); we assume he's Jewish since he's in a ghetto and not happy about dealing with Nazis; we also assume he's an adult (mostly due to the tone of the prose). That's a heck of a lot for one sentence! But it's also commonplace for the kinds of sentences reader come across in short stories. Writers are taught to make sentences do more than one thing for a story, but short story writers are slave drivers of their sentences. We make our sentences multi-task all the time - sometimes to a ridiculous level.
And that, perhaps, is one reason some readers find short stories difficult. They require a tad more work from the reader. In a novel, the opening sentence above might have spread out to a paragraph, gently bringing the reader up to speed and preparing her for the journey ahead. For a short story, the reader is expected to interpret a lot more information in a short space. If thought about that way, a short story rests somewhere between a novel and a poem. And like poetry, for those readers willing to push forth into the work, the rewards are tremendous.