I have turned to short stories for my reading fix of late. The long dark days of winter and enforced isolation due to the pandemic sees me wandering around my house, completing tasks while listening to stories by Shirley Jackson, Ian McEwan and Elizabeth McCracken. I can listen to an entire story while on the treadmill, a second while ironing, another while chopping dried fruit for the Christmas cake.
With the expansion of digital publishing and audiobooks in the past decades, the short-story form has become increasingly popular. Once largely printed in anthologies and magazines, short stories are now instantly accessible through digital platforms and cost-efficient to publish.
Although I haven’t ventured into writing short stories yet, several ideas are burbling away in my mind. The shorter time frame to produce them is appealing. It took seven years to write my first novel The Engraver – 95 chapters, 110,000 words, dual narratives set 400 years apart, countless re-writes – a long process that was simultaneously enjoyable and tortuous. Given my penchant for deliberating over every word I write, a short story will doubtless take me weeks to produce. But it is a written art form I am keen to study.
Regardless of the genre or length of a story, the writing process is similar. The writer needs to get to the heart of the story quickly, include only essential elements, avoid verbose or philosophical meanderings, develop a main character readers care about, include tension and conflict, build efficiently to the climax, and have a distinct conclusion. Each of these elements is heightened with short-story writing.
Short stories pare away extraneous details to highlight the bare bones of a character’s dilemma or situation. Because they normally focus on one aspect of a character’s life, they often have a small cast of characters. They usually begin close to the final conflict, so the pacing is fast throughout with little room for backstory.
As the shortest day of winter approaches, I will be immersing myself in a myriad of short stories from a range of genres, enjoying their pared-back style and fast pace. Do let me know if you have additional short stories to recommend.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
Désirée’s Baby by Kate Chopin (1893)
Dubliners by James Joyce (1914)
The Daughters of the Late Colonel by Katherine Mansfield (1920)
Big Two-Hearted River by Ernest Hemingway (1925)
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948)
A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor (1953)
The Landlady by Roald Dahl (1959)
The Swimmer by John Cheever (1964)
Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier (1973)
Butterflies by Ian McEwen (1975)
Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver (1988)
The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami (1993)
Runaway by Alice Munro (2004)
Cat Person by Kristen Roupenian (2017)
The Irish Wedding by Elizabeth McCracken (2021)
Sleeping Beauty by Laura Demers (2021)
A Prolonged Kiss by Jonathan Gibbs (2021)