Short Story Form A Brief History

The short story as a literary form is relatively new to western literature. In the late 1300s, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales witnessed the emergence of tales in poetic form. Chaucer drew great inspiration from the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, author of The Decameron. Written after Europe had been devastated by the Plague, The Decameron (1351-1353) is often credited as the precursor to the short story, as is Antoine Galland's French translation of the classic Arabic Thousand and One Nights in 1704.

In the mid-1820s, the Brothers Grimm released their Fairy Tales, which revitalized an interest in the tale. The nineteenth century saw the inception of the short story form, with its popularity peaking in the century's final 25 years. Magazines, both pulp and slick, created a market for short fiction that helped establish the short story as a viable literary form. Often referred to as the "father of the short story," Edgar Allen Poe called the form the "child of the American magazine." Poe published Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1836. His contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, published Twice Told Tales shortly afterward in 1837.

Poe's 1842 review of Hawthorne's Tales was pivotal to the establishment of the short story. In his discussion of Hawthorne's style, Poe identifies a process of writing short stories that has evolved into a definition of the form. Hawthorne, according to Poe, discovers "a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out...he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect...In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to one preestab-lished design."

The Importance of Language

A century later, another master of the form, Flannery O'Connor, defined a story as "a way to say something that cannot be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is." While O'Connor echoes Poe in identifying the importance of each word to creating a story's "single effect," her identification signals the increasing importance of language to the short story's development. In the twentieth century, many writers eschewed Poe's directive to write toward a "preestablished design." Writers such as O'Connor and Raymond Carver have remarked that the story's effect is discovered through the writer's immersion in the story's language.

This attention to language mirrors poetry. In some ways, the short story might be as aptly compared to the poem as to the novel. Like a poem, a short story requires precision at the level of the word. But more importantly, a short story can work like a poem to leave a specific impression, what Poe described as the "single effect." Short stories and poetry work as gesture. Traditionally, the wide scope of the novel allows lifetimes to transpire in several hundred pages. In a simplistic analogy, the novel offers the reader a panoramic view, as if from the top of a canyon. The short story, on the other hand, is a view through a window frame. The story suggests an impression, a brief glimpse at some specific scene or series of scenes within a specific frame.

The Aim of the Short Story

As Thomas Hardy was aware, therein lies the short story writer's conundrum, "to reconcile the average with that uncommonness which alone makes it natural that a tale of experience would dwell in the memory and induce repetition." Hardy articulates the desire of the short story to delight, to imbue the ordinary with extraordinary intensity.

Certainly, that sounds like a tall order for the developing short story writer. But what I hope to suggest, through this brief historical summary, is that your writing's capacity to delight resides in your attention to language. All you need to think about, initially, is the sentence you are writing.

This chapter opened with the suggestion that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Of course, a short story's structure is more complex than this description. For beginning writers, however, thinking too much about structure can keep you from writing. For this reason, the chapter's exercises have focused on the sentence, on letting language guide your story.

Essentially, as Raymond Carver notes, "all we have, finally, are the words." Carver goes on to say, however, that they "better be the right ones." Your writing can only improve with a better understanding of what makes words "the right ones." Understanding the craft of short story writing offers a way of thinking and talking about narrative that will eventually improve your writing. Recognizing techniques that other writers employ will strengthen your technique. Carver, who died in 1988, a century after Hardy published Wessex Tales, claims that "it's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring—with immense, even startling power."

Writing Practice

Word Play

1. Go back to your story from the First Lines exercise. If your story is long, choose two or three paragraphs.

2. Rewrite your story (or the excerpt) omitting all adjectives and adverbs.

3. Rewrite your story again, using only one-syllable words.

Read all three pieces of this exercise. What do you notice about your prose style, your choice of words? What changed in your story with the omission of adjectives and adverbs? What was the effect of using only monosyllabic words?

This process of revising is intended to help you recognize patterns in your writing at the level of the word. When you have to examine each word at the level of the syllable, you begin to notice how you construct your sentences. Possibly, you recognize your tendency to use strings of adverbs when precision calls for a well-chosen verb. Perhaps you rely too heavily on your thesaurus when "commence" can be "start." Most likely, your revisions will need to be revised to pull a story out of this exercise. But if you learned something about your writing patterns, you have exercised well.

Steal This Sentence: Titles and Authors

1. "Cathedral," Raymond Carver

2. "The Rocking-Horse Winner," D.H. Lawrence

3. "A Telephone Call," Dorothy Parker

4. "The Chasm," John Keeble

5. "Saint Marie," Louise Erdrich

6. "Love in Haniel," Thaisa Frank

7. "The Little Heidelberg," Isabel Allende

8. "The H Street Sledding Record," Ron Carlson

9. "In the Gloaming," Alice Elliott Dark

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