Monday, April 26, 2010

The thing and the other thing

Next week, I'm going back to my writers' workshop. Now that my novel is done, I need some new material to share with the group. So I'm attempting to write a new short story. I haven't written much short fiction. I haven't even read much short fiction. What, exactly, is a short story?

The main distinction is that a short story is short and a novel is long. A short story is usually under 10K words whereas a novel is over 50K. But there are other, more subtle, differences. Unlike novels, which may have several waves of rising stakes and climaxes and resolutions -- not to mention subplots -- a short story has one single climactic event. It usually has one or two main characters and is told in one point of view. And there's not much room for detailed setting and long chunks of exposition.

But that doesn't mean a short story is simple, or easier to write. In fact, it's often viewed as the purer, higher form of literary fiction (probably by short story writers). A successful novelist by no means makes a successful short story writer and vice versa. For example, The New York Times predictably skewered John Grisham's attempt at a short story collection, equating it to Michael Jordan's unfortunate baseball experiment. Personally, I might have used the Garth Brooks - Chris Gaines analogy.

It's been said (by Hemingway, I think, or someone like Hemingway) that a short story is about "the thing and the other thing." In addition to what physically happens in a narrative, the best stories also have some deeper meaning or theme that, while not explicitly stated, is really what the story is about. In a short story, the writer has to cover the thing and the other thing quite quickly, in a limited space. He has to make more with less. This as opposed to the literary novel, which allows more space, and therefore can be about the thing and the thing and the thing, and also the thing, and, if you're smart enough to get it, it's really about the other thing.

It's all too much to consider. I'm going to shut my computer and go watch "The Hills," which is just about the thing. Although sometimes that's about the other thing, too.

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