When I taught creative writing to college students, the textbook I used was Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story. If you want to better understand how fiction (or, for that matter, creative nonfiction) works, I commend LaPlante’s book to you.

LaPlante devotes most of a chapter to the question of what a short story is, and how it is different from a novel or a novella, aside from the obvious fact that a short story is shorter than those longer forms. That chapter (“The Shapely Story”) has provided me with much of the language and many of the categories I use when helping other writers understand the work of short-story writing; Laplante’s fingerprints will be all over my Short Story Summer Campwhich starts June 29.

Before I launch into definitions and theories about short stories, let me say this: If your story works, it works. There are a thousand ways to write a good short story, and if you have written a story that succeeds, you are under no obligation to measure it according to anybody’s categories or rules or definitions, and you certainly don’t need to worry about Freitag’s Pyramid. The following principles were made for the short-story writer, not the short-story writer for the principles. But if you’re having trouble finding your way into a short story, or if you’ve written a story that doesn’t work but you don’t know why, ponder the following things in your heart (and know that I am speaking in generalizations that are broader than I could possibly support).

Novels give you room to stretch your legs, to sprawl, to introduce subplots and rabbit trails. Do you want to write a chapter about every known kind of whale? Go ahead on. Herman Melville did. Do you feel like devoting 15,000 words to a description of the sewers in Paris? I don’t mind if I do, said Victor Hugo. The novelist’s work is the work of expansion and diversity of experience. Things unfold and keep unfolding for tens of thousands of words. 

The short story, on the other hand tends to be driven by unity rather than diversity, distillation rather than expansion. In his introduction to a 1907 anthology of short fiction, Brander Matthews (quoted in LaPlante), wrote,

The short story must do one thing only, and it must do this completely and perfectly; it must not loiter or digress; it must have unity of action, unity of temper, unity of tone, unity of color, unity of effect, and it must vigilantly exclude everything that might interfere with its singleness of intention.

If you are suspicious of any theorist who says a story must do anything, I share your suspicion. But with a little adjustment, you can see Brander Matthews’s dicta not as constraints but as a help. They shrink down the job of story-writing to something much more manageable and much less daunting (if, indeed, you are daunted by the thought of writing a short story). Here’s my friendlier, less prescriptive revision of Brander Matthews’s declaration:

When you write a short story, you only assume responsibility for one thing, though you need to do that thing completely and thoroughly. You don’t have to loiter or digress. You are only responsible for one action, one tone, one effect. Nobody expects you to include anything that interferes with your one intention for the story.

I especially like a formulation offered by the novelist John L’Heureux. He speaks of a kind of story that sets out to “Capture a moment after which nothing can ever be the same again.” That’s not the only way to think of a short story, but if you don’t know where to start, you can try starting there. Take it as your job simply to capture a moment after which nothing can every be the same for a character or characters. That doesn’t mean your short story must only consist of the one scene in which things change forever. You may end up depicting any number of scenes in order to enable the reader to inhabit the moment of change. Even still, think in terms of distillation: what’s the least you can show and tell in order to achieve your desired effect?

Next week I’ll offer up a very different (but, I think, reconcilable) approach to fiction-writing advocated by George Saunders in his book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.

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