by Zack Witzel
Succinct. Compact. Crisp.
A successful short story can captivate. It can console. It can discomfort. And all in just one sitting.
In short fiction, writers must force themselves to choose each word carefully. The balance of a story can depend on every noun, verb and adjective.
Short stories and novels share many aspects, yes. Both, on a base level, tell a fictional narrative. Both showcase a writer’s talents. Both require a command of language.
But several things certainly differentiate the two genres.
Edgar Allan Poe, in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” argued that the reading of a literary work should span no longer than a single sitting. He applied this thought to both short stories and poems.
Short stories may range from 1,000 to 9,000 words. Novels consist of 50,000 or more.
Reading a novel can take days—weeks even—to complete, especially in a busy lifestyle. To absorb every last detail would require several read-throughs. Now, that’s true of the short story, but at a fraction of the size, the short story presents a much easier intake for the reader.
Novels take a while to get to the point. Overarching themes can take hundreds of pages to fully come to fruition. Wordiness and length can dilute big moments in the narrative.
Through a short story, however, a writer can leave a reader both stunned and motionless—in less than half an hour.
A writer can no doubt experiment with his grammar and syntax in the form of long fiction. But the ease of trying out different voices, points of view and settings never presents itself more clearly than in short fiction: A writer may tackle these challenges more frequently.
Prolific authors Poe and Ernest Hemingway each published dozens of short stories, showcasing their highly exploratory writing practices. Even J.D. Salinger experimented in the genre.
Hemingway and Salinger, though both crafted celebrated novels, preferred the structure of the short story.
A novel’s text can encompass any number of stories, points of view or plots. Interlacing storylines, while sometimes interesting, can confuse readers.
Short stories, by contrast, often only contain one simple, concise plot. Character growth can still occur. Action can still develop. But everything’s clearer.
Honestly, everyone has enough time to take in a short story. A brief few moments before bed, an otherwise boring train ride, an afternoon out on the porch, in between commercials during primetime television—there’s time.
Even in the world of the iPhone, BlackBerry and Android, the text of a short story can be read on a cell phone screen much like that of a news story or blog post.
Simply not true with the novel.
So just take a seat. Read.
Digest a short story. Feel the punch. Appreciate a writer’s experiment. Revel in its clarity. And enjoy the convenience.
Then, perhaps, repeat.
Zack Witzel studies journalism and mass communication and English at St. Bonaventure University. He writes in his free time, in his not-so-free time, and probably in his sleep.