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Sunday, 24 April 2011





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Art of short story writing

In my previous column, I focused the readers’ attention on ‘short story’ as a literary genre. To a certain extent, I traced the genesis of the short story and how this important literary genre has evolved into its modern form. In this column, I would like to explore more into the intricacies of this unique literary genre.

Before dealing with the subject at hand, however, it is imperative to look at ‘short story’ as a literary genre by comparing it with the novel which has its unique features and offers a wider scope against the short story.

Although the rudimentary difference between a novel and novella is that of length, it is entirely different between a novel and a short story. A novella is a short novel which carries all the essential ingredients of a novel albeit in a miniaturised form.

The model short story is something other than a mere story which is short. The fundamental difference between a short story and a novel is the essential unity of impression in the short story.

In other words, it is this particular unity of impression which is impossible to be found in a novel. Often it can be observed that a short story fulfils three fundamental false unities of the French classical drama (French drama shows one action, one place in a single day). A short story often deals with a single character, a single event or a series of emotions triggered out by a singular situation.

A short story is a fictional narration with a single effect while the novel is a narration which has to be broken into series of episodes or chapters. An important fact that should be borne in mind when crafting a short story is that the short story is not a chapter out of a novel or an episode extracted from a longer narration.

The best short story gives the impression that it would be spoiled, if it is either enlarged or incorporated into longer narration.

A seminal literary themes often found in the novel is love. The novelist is compelled or under obligation to incorporate the literary motif of love into a larger tapestry of narration with the intention of keeping the reader’s interest to the end.

However, a short story writer has no such obligation, though love may be key element in the story. Perhaps the only difference between novel and a short story in this regard is the writer’s focus.

In a love story, the short story writer will focus on a slice or a phase of a love story without telling the end which may be far away and complex, as Anton Chekov ends his famous love story between Dimitri Dmitritch Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna in ‘The Lady with the Dog: “it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.”

A short story writer has specific obligations which a novelist is not required to adhere to. A novelist may cover a longer history within a large scope and could afford sub-stories within the plot. Nevertheless, a short story writer should immediately proceed to the task at hand and execute the story in a concise manner and is required to exercise a vigorous compression in the narration.

Though a novelist may go into detailed descriptions of a setting, personalities of protagonists or to depict socio-cultural milieu of the time, what is essentially required of a short story is the precision and resourcefulness. If a short story writer could add an element of a fantasy by compression through novelty and resourcefulness that would suffice.

An important factor that a short story writer should bear in mind is the distinction between a mere story which is short and the scope of his/her craft. Anthony Trollope, an English novelist once said, “…I wish to emphasis the distinction between the Short Story and the story which is short. The story which is short can be written by anybody who can write at all; and it may be good, bad or indifferent; but at its best it is wholly unlikely the Short Story.”

Examples of a story which is short can be found in eighteenth century British monthly magazines and in Sunday edition of American newspapers. They are either merely expanded anecdotes or incidents which may or may not be used in a novel.

A writer of a short story must have a sense of the “form” which can be called “the highest and last attribute of a creative writer”. The construction of a good short story must always be logical and harmonious. It should also be noted that mere sense of form and gift of style would not make a good writer of a short story. The writer should have a plan though it should not be a complex plot as a full-length novel.

Another important fact about a short story is its subject. The centrality of the subject could be an action or an incident. It is this action or climax or anti-climax which distinguishes a short story from a sketch. A good example of such a story is “The Killers” by Ernest Hemingway. A sketch of a novel can be a ‘still-life’ but in a short story something always happens.

However, though a short story may be limited in scope, it offers infinite possibilities within its scope. At its best, it can be as realistic as the most impressive realistic novel.

Among the great short story writers, Guy de Maupassant stands out as a master of the craft. The Philosophy of the Short Story highlights: “His short stories are masterpieces of the art of story-telling. Because he had a Greek sense of form, a Latin power of construction and a French felicity of style.

They are simple, most of them; direct, swift, inevitable and inexorable in their straightforward movement. If art consists in the suppression of non-essentials there have been few greater artists in fiction than Maupassant.



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