The formula for a successful short story should be pretty manageable. Roughly 1500 words which encompasses developing characters, an engaging story and a conclusion which ties it all together and doesn’t leave a reader feeling diddled by that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach which says that the entire thing fell just short of the mark.
So why is it that most of the short stories I have ever read have almost always left me with that sinking feeling and indignant response of “What did I just read?!”
Take, for instance “A-Z of Horror” by Iain Rob Wright. I discovered Wright about a year ago when I began reading his zombie apocalypse series ‘Ravaged World Trilogy’. His style of writing was refreshing, immediately immersive and didn’t waste time on all the unnecessary details when introducing setting and characters. Even with his concise prose, you don’t feel that the story suffers in any way and upon finishing you are desperate for the next fix. However, rather than looking for my next fix following “A-Z of Horror”, I was desperately looking for a way in which the stories within should be fixed. (See what I did there?)
The title is fairly self-explanatory; the book explores a selection of horror themes with each story titled with the beginning letter in the order of the alphabet. For ‘A’ (titled Anti-Christ) we are introduced to a boy celebrating his 14th birthday party. He invites some friends over to celebrate and the evening takes a strange and somewhat sudden turn when out of nowhere he realises he has the ability to control people through the power of his speech. Although I liked the dark similarity to Harry Enfield’s ‘Kevin’ sketch (you know the one…the clock strikes midnight on his 13th birthday and all of a sudden he is a dreaded teenager with a complete personality transplant) there seemed to be no logic to the story and it just came off as unfinished.
Then there was ‘F’ for ‘Feral’ which combined teenage angst and awakening of sexual desires to an odd legend which was completely predictable from the first page.
Wright isn’t the only author who has attempted a short story with lacklustre results. Joe Hill, son of esteemed horror writer Stephen King, attempted the impossible and dare I say it, foolish task of following in his father’s footsteps. His collection of short stories titled ‘20th Century Ghosts’ showed a lot of promise and of course, with the knowledge of his genetics, I was anticipating big things. I should have lowered my expectations. The only story which stuck out to me at all was ‘Dead Wood’ and it wasn’t memorable for the right reasons. Confusing, rushed and just ridiculous, there was no part of the incredibly short story which had a redeeming feature. Surprising, seeing as the only collection of short stories I have ever considered to be a success was from Stephen King. ‘Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ was faultless. Intricate stories with intriguing characters woven into a collection which kept me hooked up until the last page. ‘Under The Weather’ haunted me for months after and I still think back to it with that creeping feeling underneath my skin. Although you can guess where the story is heading, it still doesn’t stop your heart racing when the conclusion is revealed. ‘Obits’ was an imaginative concept and I loved the dark humour King flawlessly managed to incorporate without detracting from the dread.
So what makes creating a successful short story such an elusive task? You would think that being able to be concise with a smaller word count would keep readers attention and heighten the experience of being pulled into the story. However, in retrospect, maybe having less content restricts a writer’s ability to fully develop characters and give their story the detail it needs.
In ‘The Scribophile’ blog, it is argued that a short story can allow for only one character to feature prominently which may be a reason that a story occasionally (in my opinion) does not fully evolve by the last page but does give the writer an advantage. I would be inclined to disagree with the idea that short stories should exclusively only be for 1 character. I read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Orphan X’ by Gregg Hurwitz which I felt to be quite a one-dimensional story in terms of the characters involved.
Maybe as readers, we feel more satisfied when we have been immersed completely in a story and have felt that we have taken a journey with the characters. Perhaps this is just not possible with a short story and that is why we often feel there is something lacking. I certainly have found myself quite attached to characters and felt something akin to very mild grief when the experience with them has finished.
It could also be that as readers, although we love to use our imagination to find deeper meanings…maybe we actually dislike unfinished questions and lack of guidance within a story.
On the subject of short stories, I am always brought back to the six word story, supposedly written by Hemingway ‘Baby Shoes’. Six words, with so many possibilities and questions. So many gaps for a reader to fillwhich must be why it was such a success. So, it could be said that there needs to be a balance between allowing a reader to construct their own meanings and giving them all the information required to whole-heartedly enjoy a story.
My quest for the perfect short story continues…I am hoping that by launching this entry in to the world, I may have some recommendations to expand my search!