Well, although it may be a while before I get back into reading novels again [Edit: Expect book reviews to return for about a month or so in about two and a half weeks’ time], I recently found myself testing the waters by reading a couple of short stories from Jodi Taylor’s “Long Story Short” collection. Admittedly, they were the two shortest stories in the book but I enjoyed reading them more than I’d expected. And, although I still seem to be more interested in films, games etc… at the moment, I was at least reassured that I hadn’t got any worse at reading during this break.
Still, all of this made me think about short stories. Although they are probably my favourite type of fiction to write, I have a rather weird relationship with actually reading them. For example, although there were at least three short story collections I’d thought about reviewing during all of those book reviews I wrote during the past couple of years, I always found myself drawn more towards reading traditional novels and novellas instead – probably because they were either easier to review or because I wanted to spend longer focusing on a single story.
Even so, reading a couple of short stories recently has reminded me why this format is so awesome. Here are a few of the reasons:
1) They’re like a TV series (that is older than TV): One of the cool things about short stories is that they are probably closer in style and format to a traditional TV series. After all, they are usually self-contained stories (sometimes featuring recurring characters) that can be enjoyed in satisfying 15-60 minute instalments.
But, interestingly, short stories were “TV series” from before television was a thing. In the 19th and early 20th century, one of the main forms of popular entertainment were short stories published in magazines. You would literally get a new short story every week, fortnight or month. The most famous example of this is probably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories – many of which were first published in magazines, rather than books.
These are detective stories that feature recurring main characters, in a similar way to pretty much any detective TV show. Yet, as you’ve probably guessed, this series existed long before television did. In an even more prescient move, the Sherlock Holmes stories are almost structured into “seasons” – with each collection containing about 8-12 stories or so.
In fact, two of the collections (“The Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes” and “The Return Of Sherlock Holmes”) even do the classic TV show thing of splitting a two-part story – with a cliffhanger- between the collections. Again, this is a series that is so old that the copyright on it has actually expired (in the UK and mainland Europe, at least. In the US, the final story collection – “The Case-Book Of Sherlock Holmes” – is still copyrighted).
So, yes, short stories are surprisingly similar to TV series – but with all of the added benefits of the written word (eg: better characterisation, interesting writing styles/descriptions, the creative vision of one author etc..).
2) Structure, pacing and focus: Another cool thing about short stories is that their structure and pacing are often a lot more focused than novel-length stories are. After all, a short story has to tell a full story in a fraction of the space that a novel has, so every word and sentence matters even more than they do in a novel.
Yes, this means that short story plots will often be slightly less complex than novel plots, but it also means that the writer has to focus on what is really important. For example, whilst short stories might have a smaller number of characters or locations than a novel does, these things will often be a bit more “intense” because the writer can focus on them a bit more.
Because short stories have to get to the point a lot more quickly and also have to do more with fewer words, this results in a more intense and memorable experience that is very different to what you might expect if you’re more used to novel-length stories.
3) Stuff you won’t find in novels: Because of this short length, short stories can also explore creative or quirky ideas and themes that really wouldn’t work if they were stretched out into a full-length novel. This means that short stories can often be more amusing, interesting and creative than novels can sometimes be.
For example, Isaac Asimov’s memorable sci-fi short story “Victory Unintentional” just wouldn’t work as a full novel. Without spoiling too much, the whole story is a very elaborate joke set in outer space, and the payoff to reading the earlier parts of the story is absolutely hilarious – but it probably wouldn’t be if you had to trudge through a whole novel to get there.
Likewise, Chuck Palahniuk’s notorious dark comedy short story “Guts” wouldn’t work at novel length either. Not only would the story’s shock value start to wear off if the story was too long, but the story also relies on a very precise three-part structure too. In addition to this, “Guts” is also a story that is best when it is read twice – because a second reading (when you know what to expect) will reveal all sorts of comedic elements and amusing themes that you were probably too grossed out to notice the first time around. Because it is short, it is a lot easier and quicker to re-read the whole thing and get the most out of it.
Although short stories can work really well in a wide range of genres (sci-fi and horror especially), you’ll notice that the two examples I’ve given here are both comedy stories. This is because short stories are an absolutely brilliant format for certain types of comedic fiction. After all, most jokes are technically very short stories of one kind or another and short stories allow for a similar set-up and punchline/plot twist structure in a way that longer stories don’t.
4) Getting into reading: If you’re new to reading fiction or are out of practice with it, then short stories are also a really great way to get into reading. Because of their short length and focused plots, they can often seem a lot less daunting than reading a full-length novel (which can take hours).
Likewise, if you don’t feel like you have the time for a full novel or don’t want to take notes (although many modern novels include small recaps to reduce the need for this) in order to keep track of the story over the days or weeks it might take you to read it, then short stories can come in handy here too. After all, being able to start and finish a story in a single reading session is a satisfying experience that feels surprisingly similar to binge-reading a full novel.
Yes, short stories aren’t the only way to get into reading fiction. Other things, like fast-paced thriller novels, can also be a useful way to ease yourself into reading fiction too. But, if you’re interested in reading, then short stories might be a good place to start.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂