Long before man first grasped a quill, he would gather his tribe around the campfire and tell tales. Fiction has always been about storytelling. It began as oral tradition, tales passed through the generations by word of mouth, and later etched on papyrus, paper, and now digital screens. Stories vary in length: there is the brief joke; flash fiction; the short story; the novelette; the novella; the novel; and the epic or saga.
The short story sits on the literary landscape somewhere between the joke and the epic. It is, arguably, the most difficult format to write. It demands brevity and conciseness of the writer. Diction and vocabulary become paramount. Seeking an economy of words, the short story author must chose le mot juste. Many authors, used to writing without constraint, find it challenging not to write; it is far easier to ramble aimlessly than to choose one’s words with precision and ration them accordingly.
The short story usually eschews subplots in favor of a single plot and obviously must focus on fewer characters. There is less space to develop characterization, so word choice becomes critical in defining characters in the reader’s mind. The story may revolve around characters, plot, or mood. Its brevity makes the short story a perfect vehicle for delivering a message. Such tales can be moralistic, cautionary, or thought-provoking. Aesop knew this when he crafted his fables.
In our fast food culture, short stories should be a favorite with our Attention Deficit Disorder society. They are small portions that can be digested quickly. They have a greater impact than novels because they drive their point home in one sitting; a novel is read incrementally, over a longer period, causing it to lose some of its sharpness and immediacy.
So why does the reading public exhibit a penchant for novels but not embrace short stories with equal zeal? I think it has to do with a shrinking venue. Historically, novels have been sold as free-standing books, whereas short stories were relegated to magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, Life, and Readers Digest. The once burgeoning magazine industry has become anorexic, leaving writers fewer outlets for their short stories.
The good news is the Dark Ages may be drawing to a close. E-books may herald the renaissance of the short story, because they allow short stories to be marketed as discrete entities, like a novel, a feat that could previously be accomplished only by lumping multiple shorts together into an anthology. So break open your Kindle, your Nook, or even an old-fashioned book, and enjoy a short story today.