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There’s a Lot Packed Into a Short Story

Today’s Writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is “Short Story.”

At its most basic, a short story is a fictional tale that can be read in a single sitting. So it’s typically between 1,000 and 5,000 words. Some sources and competitions, however, do take a more liberal interpretation of the term, allowing for 17,000 words or even up to 20,000.

To give you an idea of how many pages that is or how long it would take you to get through a work that length, this blog post is only about 640 words long (title included).

At least in their classic interpretation, short stories are bound to be much more philosophical in nature than their more bulky big brothers. While novels are marketed – if not created entirely – for their entertainment values, short stories often point to some moral perspective or world view or social commentary that the author wants to express.

That’s why English professors and high-minded literary types love discussing them: because they can get into nuanced, snooty-sounding discussions about interpretations or authorial intentions vs. reader understandings.

If you can’t guess from that sentence above, I don’t have the highest opinion of the short story designation in general. Oftentimes, their tendency to preach make them obnoxiously self-righteous, dreary and depressing, or just downright boring: none of which interests me.

That applies to both lauded literary works and modern-day attempts by relative nobodies.

However, there are some definite exceptions throughout modern history. When a short story writer can manage to get away from his or her own ego, the results can be downright stunning.

To this day, I still remember a former college friend’s tiny tale called Blue Jean Baby. It was a simple storyline about a teenaged girl who didn’t like throwing things away, whether they be blue jeans or boyfriends who had outlived their relationship value.

The whole scene was set alone in her bedroom, with the main and only character musing to herself about the things she’d collected and couldn’t quite bring herself to part with. By the end of the story – less than seven pages in total – she comes to the mature realization that there are just certain belongings that are only meant to be kept for a season.

The narrative was brief. The moral succinct. And the overall effect enjoyable.

I might not have a good opinion of its author as a human being nowadays, but her status as a noteworthy writer is solidly cemented in my mind.

On the professional end of the spectrum, the same applies to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter. (Yes, he wrote more than just The Scarlet Letter). Quite the tale, it’s a science-fiction piece about a madman of a gardener who’s willing to experiment with anything and everything, including human lives.

Actually, most of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories make for fascinating, well-written and thought-provoking reads. It’s just that Rappaccini’s Daughter is my favorite.

Or take Edgar Allen Poe’s dark, twisted, alcohol-fueled creations. I’m not sure which one of his short stories is more disturbingly yet superbly constructed, though I’d like to nominate two off the top of my head:

  1. The Cask of Amontillado, which records the last, sinister interaction between two men: one who thinks they’re fast friends and the other who knows they’re intense enemies

  2. The Pit and the Pendulum, which might have a happier ending than Poe’s other narratives, but is still a nightmare-inducing encounter between a man strapped to a board and a sharp, metal blade swinging back and forth over his midsection, dropping slightly lower every time it sways.

As short stories go, they’re terrifyingly effective and therefore serve as perfect examples of how to master the art of packing a whole lot of information into one small fictional account.

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