The Short Mystery Fiction Society (SMFS) has been hosting an on-line discussion about whether a writer should begin by writing short stories before tackling novels. Several of the contributors think that writing short stories is a good way to hone writing skills before tackling the longer work. Others say short stories often provide material which later turn into novels while there are some who feel that they are separate skills to master. I like to write short stories between novels, giving myself a break, developing other characters and situations, but I wouldn’t say I was an accomplished short story writer.
Short stories aren’t easy to write. They require at least as much skill as writing novels, maybe more. The idea that you can learn how to write novels by writing short stories doesn’t seem accurate to me. Generally, the best short story writers write only those.
I have a tendency to add too much extraneous material in a short story, turning it into not quite a novella but something which is too long for a story and too short for anything else. The short story writer needs to stick to the point of the story, forget the extra material that crops up, and, particularly with mystery short stories, work toward an ending that will at least slightly surprise the reader. O’Henry, of course, was the master of the plot twist, as was Saki, but those are classics, and few of us write classics. But readers feel cheated if the story ends with a whimper, not at least a small bang.
Literary short stories are different in that they don’t need a surprise ending, but they do need an epiphany of some sort on the part of the protagonist, some change in him or her. Alice Munro, a favorite of mine, writes only short stories, and she is a master. Most of her stories take place in rural Canada, and I identify with her characters and the setting because of years I spent as a child in rural upstate New York. Her stories are long for short stories, encompassing a lot of their characters’ experiences, often their whole lives. But the main character always experiences some change, some new realization in the way she sees the world. Such writing is not easy to do. I think writing short stories requires an equal or greater amount of skill than writing novels. You can hone your writing skills on them, but in order to write them well, you need to master that art.
Still, writing a short story from beginning to end can be very rewarding. There’s no need to go back to it day after day, week after week, month after month, as with a novel. Short stories may have a dreaded middle, but it’s a short middle, unlike the middle of the novel.
The dreaded middle of the novel occurs when the writer, full of enthusiasm, has set up the premise, developed the characters and setting, told the reader what the conflict is, and has the reader in suspense about how the conflict will be solved; but there are at least a hundred pages before the beginning of the ending. We’ve all read those: the novels that start out terrifically with great characters and an interesting plot and setting that then go limp in the middle. We wonder why we started reading the novel in the first place, wonder if we should just quit, but we can’t just jump ahead because something may happen that makes the end understandable. The shortness of the story makes that middle not nearly so dangerous. Just make it a shorter story!
I’ve had people say to me, “I don’t like short stories because it takes time to figure out who’s doing what and why and then the story’s over, and I have to start all over again.” Those readers like novels, where they can immerse themselves in a world: they meet the characters, know the setting and learn the problems and the difficulty of finding the solution. Then they can luxuriate in that world for days or even weeks. Others like short stories because they can move quickly into a new setting with new characters, determine the problem and reach the climax, all in a short time. Each story is an exploration of a new experience.