On Short Stories, Reading and Other Ramblings

The Children’s books of my youth were filled with short stories, many of them surrounding the tumultuous conflicts of chicks, puppies and other farm animals, often unfolding in and around parks, ponds and barns.  At least this is my recall.  I remember a fair amount of discussion regarding kites as well, the importance of which was never adequately explained.  The little readers of elementary school were especially trying for me.  Even then, I thought they were dreadful and warranted an Amnesty International investigation.

Though the scars were still fresh, I had not given up on the written word entirely.  But I did not pick up a book with any measure of what passes for literary enthusiasm in the average kid until I found Encyclopedia Brown and other similar books, which are at best novellas.  (There is a reoccurring theme here, so turn off your Facebook chat and stop looking at LoLcats and pay attention.)

I loved those stories and after running through the selections on the book shelf of my sixth grade English classroom, I did the nearly unthinkable.  Without any homework requirements or class work assignments to force my hand, I asked for a hall pass to go to the – wait for it – the school library.  Our library was smaller than a bedroom, shelved and paneled in dark wood (my memory holds on to mahogany, but I’m confident it was oak from a high school shop project gone wrong).

And there, just to the right of the door, sitting on their own dark stained ‘oak’ cutting board of a shelf, all dressed in yellow spined hardcovers – they waited.  They were all there (actually it was the second set that was there, but I digress from my emotional childhood moment), in sequence, beckoning.  Tom Swift and his Flying Lab called to me.  I picked it up, studied the fabulous art on the cover and opened it to page one.  I’ve been reading ever since.

Now these were also novellas, each title was a little over hundred pages with larger fonts.  Some of you may have been bushwhacked by the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, but for me it was Tom Swift.  And then one day a year or so later, I was in B. Dalton’s (remember them?) and in a perfect and seamless transition picked up A Princess of Mars and left the short story and novella behind, or so I thought.

By the end of Junior High I had run through every Burroughs book I could find and had discovered Moorcock, Delany, Piers Anthony, Lin Carter, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien, Feist, Asimov, Clark, Bradbury, Heinlein and numerous books from the 60’s and 70’s, scrounged from the musty back shelves of my local used book store.  The “classics” from school were at best lame and at worst, well, still lame, but also a waste of time.  Jane who?  Charles who?  (To be fair, I have matured since then and now appreciate the classics to a measured degree, especially the ones with zombies.)

But, Elric and Stormbringer?  That was magic.  And little did I realize that many of these books were compilations of short stories.  I was being schooled and didn’t even know it.

Now it bears mentioning that I started watching Star Trek reruns as a young kid, about the same time we were landing on the moon (also on TV) and a really cool show called UFO.  I had the usual obsession with Frankenstein and the old school horror movies, as well as, the 50’s science-fiction films, Forbidden Planet anyone?  Star Wars came out when I was in Junior High.  So it should come as no surprise that I was stoked when I picked up Dune, I believe I was what they call the target demographic.  (Highlight that, there’s going to be a test.)

By the time I graduated college I had run through so much sword and sorcery, fantasy and sci-fi that I didn’t know what colors were left for the alien sky to be, (Magrathea was shut down for the galactic recession).  I felt the same stories were being told over and over and I began to lose my joy of reading.  I had already discovered Cussler and read them all, and Fredric Brown (more of a mystery sci-fi writer), but more on him later, so what was there to read?

I was in a Walden Books one day, (remember them?), and I asked a sales guy, “What can you recommend?”

“Dude,” (he said ‘dude’), “Dude, everyone is reading this new book, it’s so creepy!  You have to read it.”

I read Silence of the Lambs straight through that night.  Then I picked up King and Clancy and a new vista shown itself.  Most of my childhood authors were long gone or no longer writing new works.  But now, I was reading authors who were actually still alive and writing.  In fact, new authors were even being published, new books I tell you – go figure.

The importance of this transition in genres is relevant because it opened up the concept of character, metaphor, layers and complexity like never before.  Sure, even the evil demons of my adolescent books had motivations and emotional conflict, but these new genres were different, less black and white.  They were revealing the inner character, the emotional character, the psyche that reminds me of, well, me – character sympathy, you can’t beat it with a stick, seriously – try, you can’t.

I had to go back and read the old guys again, yep, Elric is a fantastic anti-hero.  I knew it before, but understood it better now.  To be sure, this new understanding was significantly due to my maturity and education, but I’m confident that reading horror, crime drama, mainstream fiction and discovering new sci-fi writers like Orson Scott Card to name one author specifically (and Ender’s Game, to be even more specific – based on one of his short stories I hear tell), gave me a new perspective on how character and story develops.

I had always written, but never finished anything, never edited, never submitted anything anywhere, but I wrote.  It was crap.  Oh sure, some clever ideas here and there, but no story to go with them, no character to understand or sympathize with.  Enter stage right and then on through the center of your head like an exit wound – Fredric Brown.

As far as I am concerned he is one of the greats at short stories.  He taught me that a short story, at its best, will turn the reader on their head, psychologically, emotionally or logically.  Short fiction needs punch, immediate and challenging.  Novels have the luxury to meander; in short fiction every word matters.  Brown taught me how to get from A to Z (the reveal).  And he taught me that every idea isn’t a novel.  Some very cool stories lose their narrative if they go too long, (stop shaking your head at this post).

In a novel, we learn about the character through interactions and conflicts (the “don’t tell – show” concept), and then when the boyfriend dies or, “… you are in love with a werehampster, how traumatized and heart broken you must be, yadda yadda yadda,” we tear up because we care, and all of this by about page 106, page 406 for King.  A great short story on the other hand, can reach inside you and grab your heart, forcing uncontrollable sobs by the second page.  To me, that is simply astounding.  Stop and think for a moment about how difficult that is to do.  The writer has touched on a universal truth and exposed it like the nerve of a tooth, usually by revealing and expressing their deeply personal vulnerabilities, (good short story authors can be some of the most honest writers out there).  And this is one reason why novelists don’t always make for good short fiction writers and vice versa, not from lack of honesty, but from being unable to master the proper flow for each.

A novel must age like a fine wine; a short story is a shot of tequila.

I am sure that there are many types of short story formats, with a variety of official sounding categories and I would know this had I majored on English, but I didn’t take the easy way out – I majored in Business (doing my best Barty Crouch Jr. impersonation right now).  With that said, short stories seem to fall into three categories, from my experience.  The narrative, often serialized (such as the stories of Conan the Barbarian), is a simple story usually including a quest or obstacle to overcome.  Our heroes then triumph over evil and cliffhanger dangers to rescue the princess, retrieve the amulet or find the clue that identifies the killer.  They are usually straight forward and follow the typical Three Act pattern.

The second form of the short story is the slice of life or the depth of emotion piece.  These types of stories are usually characterized by experiencing something that releases a deep emotion, often grounded in a memory.  An example would be exploring the emotion a young man feels when visiting the family farm and holding one of his long dead grandfather’s hand made fishing lures.  These stories are often more artistic; the style of prose often establishes mood and they are typically esoteric in flow, allowing the reader’s own emotions (memories) to rise to the fore.  Often, they lack structure and an antagonist, even conflict isn’t essential.

The last category is the twist ending, shocker or mind bending story.  These often follow a mystery story pattern, something is off center, not quite right and then we reach the twisted reveal that wraps the story up and ties everything together.  These stories are often much darker and usually lack any sort of ending that could remotely be called happy (though they are occasionally humorous).  And it is not unusual for all three styles to exist in a single work, overlapping.  These are often some of the best short stories written.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if the story is one of anguish, a momentary slice of emotion or observation, psychological roller-coaster or magic revealed, the story must connect quickly and resonate – regardless of the fantastical scenarios, it must be real.

And then we have the literary side of short fiction which can be embedded underneath any of these story types, the flowing prose and the layers.  I’m a super fan of layers.  Don’t get me wrong, I love escapism, but if the author has me by the emotional gonads, well, that’s not only special, but it’s also probably a discussion better suited to a different sort of blog.  The point being, if it’s real, if you care about the characters as though they were real people with real emotions, if you feel like calling them to tell them everything is going to work out – you’ve probably got a bestseller in your hands.

Another literary theme is foreshadowing and metaphors, love them.  This is one of the most difficult aspects to do well in twist ending short fiction, think Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, if you are unfamiliar with the style.  If you don’t know those references, take a break and google them, otherwise I’m not going to make any sense and there is that test to think about.

The twist ending short must never appear vague or intentionally leave out important information, this drives me nuts whenever I see it and I see it all the time (books and television) – it’s not necessarily bad writing, but it is lazy writing.  A good twist reveal story should appear to explain everything (foreshadowing thy name be as sweet as a number 2 pencil), which is why the twist works.  Of course, you can’t give away the ending either, it is, as they say, a slippery slope.

Lastly there is the social commentary aspect – the basement layers.  Sure, the story is there sitting on top, entertaining and accessible, but underneath is meat, a juicy, rare filet wrapped in maple bacon, (for you vegans underneath is egg plant or possibly tofu with a nice sprout vinaigrette).  The second layer might be the emotional conflict the characters are experiencing, making connections between events in the human experience (and the reader’s) outside of the story itself.  The third layer might be the story’s metaphoric umbrella.  The next layers are usually specific points within that concept, making connections to disparate ideas and thoughts.  All of which combine to make pointed criticism on society and the human condition or educate the reader about the same.

The best shorts will affect the reader emotionally and make one question their faith, beliefs, political perspectives and relationships.  The point isn’t to necessarily change the reader’s mind, but rather to make them think and emotionally react.  Novels can do all of this as well, but all that story and narrative gets in the way.  Shorts are more like sucker punches.  Where a novel delivers melancholy, a short story should come with a suicide prevention hotline number.

Personally, while I do write some escapism, most of my shorts are working on many levels and hopefully working on a deep emotional level as well.  I try, regardless of what Yoda preaches, I do try.

I write what I love to read, the characterization of what one would expect from a full length novel and the get-to-the-point-already flow of the short format.   This is why shorts are so hard to write.  For me it is always about the story, and stories are made up of the people that populate them with all of their fears, joys, phobias, quirks, loves, hates and life experiences made flesh – and frequently in under 7,500 words.

And all of the authors I read growing up gave me an education in the short story form, pacing, the reveal, exposition, characterization and conflict.  Much of that education came from novels as well.  Novels that made me question my understanding of the short and forced me to revisit them, the result being that the simple narratives of my youth opened up like spring roses, so many layers, so much beauty that had been hidden right outside my window.

And now, dear reader if you are still with me, it is time for that test:

So, kits, cats, sacks and wives, how many were going to Saint Ives?

The answer is important, because that is who we writers work so hard to please, our demographic of one – you the reader.  The relationship between writer and reader is a personal one, direct and singular.  The important truth to remember about us is that we always were and continue to be readers first.

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