Telling a story seems straight-forward…you start at Point A and work your way to Point Z. Beginning and ending. It’s been that way since humans first told stories to one another around a camp fire in the faded past and continues today with e-books. The thing is, an A – Z approach to storytelling gets boring. It’s repetitive, it dulls the suspense and anticipation. The reader may not be familiar with a specific story, but if the author writes them all in the same way, well, the reader learns that certain beats are going to be hit at certain times. It’s like playing the same song over and over, but changing the lyrics.
Long-form storytelling (the novel) has a bit of a pass here. The novel lends itself to an open structure that allows a writer liberties with the narration. Time jumps, alternative points-of-view, a stable of characters, settings, and plot twists. The short story, however, because of its brevity, forces a writer to be more creative.
With a short story, you only have so much space in which to work. After a certain point you’re writing a novella or a novel. The difference between short stories and novels is like the one between a painting and a feature film. The single canvas forces the painter to be more creative and expressive within a limited medium. When that happens, the painter has to think differently, has to consider each brush stroke, each color choice. The movie director, on the other hand, has unlimited space to work with and can weave a much more comprehensive tapestry.
I started thinking about this the other night while reading in bed. I’m currently working my way through Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, an excellent collection of short fiction and poetry. The short stories have all been interesting and well-crafted. One of the better stories, “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…”, is brilliantly written, but also follows that basic story structure I mentioned above. You’re taken from here to there in a fairly straight-forward fashion. There is some flashback, but the story more or less travels in a chronological order. For this story, it works perfectly.
One of my favorite pieces (so far) is titled, “Orange”. This is a story told in the form of answers to questions in what is presumably a police interview. You don’t get the questions, just the numbered responses from someone who had witnessed – and experienced – a strange, supernatural event in their home. What I find interesting is that, without the context of the questions, some of the responses don’t make much sense. You have to pause for a moment to consider the response, then imagine what the question may have been. But despite that, it still tells an interesting and funny tale.
I can appreciate this. Gaiman wanted to tell this tale, but he wanted to so something different. If I consider how this story would have read if it had been written in a more traditional manner, well, I don’t think it would have worked as well. It may have still been interesting and humorous, but would it have been as fun to read? Would it have allowed me to fill in some of those missing questions? Would I have enjoyed the read as much?
That’s what I want to do with my short fiction. I want to tell good stories in unique ways. Not all of them need to be experiments, of course, but I want to push the envelope, get out of my comfort zone and see if changing the way I’m telling a story inspires me to take risks, to continue to try new things with my output. I have two stories I’ve been working on that need a kick in the butt. I’m going to take another spin with them and see what I can come up with. I’ll post an update in the future.