The Short Stories

3 The Short Story

3.2 What then is a Short Story?

The Short Story

What then is a Short Story?

While the short story was still in its initial stages of development as a distinctive genre it was Edgar Allan Poe who in 1842 gave one of the most constructive answers to the question. For Poe ‘the unity of effect or impression’ was of prime importance in a short story. According to him it was not its shortness that defined a short story but ‘the unity of effect and the intensity of impact that came with it.’ He went a step further to point out that this unity requires the work to be ‘read at one sitting’ thereby making a case even for the short length of the story as compared to the expansiveness of the novel. Poe’s views on singleness and brevity were shared by many and justifiable comparisons were made between the lyric and the short story, both of which require a certain concentration in the reader’s mind. Each detail needs an attention because there is nothing in the lyric or the short story that can be wasted. There can be no digressions and no summarization. The story and the lyric depend on ‘concreteness, on sensual impressions that deliver their meaning without waste.’ In a short story ‘the action is compressed within a short (usually continuous) time frame and space. The characters, few in number are revealed not developed. The background and setting are implied not rendered. The action begins in media res and the story gets on as quickly as possible.’

Brevity and intensity are therefore two major requirements of the genre of the short story. Somehow the effort of short story writers has been towards increasingly compressing their works. This in turn has posed a problem for them too because conciseness and compression can lessen the depth of the human experience, chip away at its richness and take away from its complexity. How can a short story writer be ‘succinct without being shallow’ or how can he create ‘a single effect without creating a merely transitory one?’ In other words, how can a story achieve its depth or the feeling of depth?

When Hemingway observed that the story reveals ‘the tip of the iceberg’ he inadvertently answered all the above questions. Just as the tip suggests that the rest of the iceberg is there too, in a short story there is a lot that is suggested and the readers have to be alert to infer it all. The setting will be intimated, characters insinuated, complexity implied and rather than summarization there will be suggestion.

When compression and suggestion work together it creates what Sean O’Faolin calls ‘the point of illumination’ and Joyce terms it as ‘epiphany’. What happens at this epiphanic moment? You will notice that at this point in a short story all things come together — characters are revealed, plot reaches its climax, we arrive at a moment of understanding and the deeper implication of the story in the human context too is made evident.

The distinctiveness of the short story then was located in three different but related qualities:

  • It makes a single impression on the reader.
  • It does so by concentrating on a single crisis.
  • It makes that crisis pivotal in a controlled plot so that there is symmetry of design and economy of movement making them a matter of ‘deliberate ease’ in Poe’s words.

Having said that we realize that the modern short story has been moving away from this kind of classification too and at times some of these points when looked at from the point of view of certain modern short stories do not stand scrutiny. For example, some modern short stories (e.g. those of Kafka) are hardly works of ‘deliberate ease’ in fact they seem to be spontaneous outpourings or fanciful dreams like Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Then there are some stories whose appeal stems mainly from their lack of a single effect and there may be interplay of several modes in them. Then the point of crisis or of revelation, though common is by and large not at all necessary. Some stories may not achieve this point of crisis, some may only hint at it and then others may totally subvert the idea making the point of crisis deliberately anti-climatic. Even where the symmetry of design is concerned, making a sequential Plot an essential requirement of a short story, the movement has been away from a plot having a beginning, middle and end. In fact Chekov’s stories have been called ‘all middle like a tortoise.’ Chekov too himself remarked once ‘I think that when one has finished writing a short story one should delete the beginning and the end.’ In fact in the hands of the modern writer the short story is moving towards being a virtually plot-less narration. Yet it shares with the other sequential stories the salient quality which was recognized by William James even in the elaborate tales written by his brother Henry James. These stories gave, he said ‘an impression like that we often get of people in life: their orbits come out of space and lay themselves for a short time along ours and then off they whirl again into the unknown leaving us with little more than an impression of their reality and a feeling of baffled curiosity as to the mystery of the beginning and end of their being.’

Present short story writers then are moving away from the earlier affirmations about the essential qualities of a short story but only time will tell whether their works will represent a new convention or a blind alley leading us nowhere. For all facts and purposes it will be good to remember that the popular form of the short story concentrates on unity of impression, a single moment of crisis and gives it all in a controlled plot when characters are revealed not developed and descriptions are compressed if not implied.