Monday, January 24, 2011

Short Stories - on ongoing investigation

I was asked recently on the Story Bridge forum about the structure of contemporary short stories. That is a large and complex question which I'd like to examine in more depth over coming posts, analyzing the style and structure of some significant contemporary short stories.

Perhaps the most significant developing in short story style is the growing use of emotional and psychological time, as Trisha notes in her post here. I too have heard (and shuddered at) the advice sometimes given that beginning writers should stick to only using straight chronological time. I think that is reductive and doesn't credit writers with the nous to explore other forms of managing time in storytelling. Our minds work very well in psychological and emotional time, and always have, due in large part to the fractious relationship between our conscious and unconscious.

For now, here's my take on contemporary short story structure and where and how it differs from more traditional styles.

Contemporary short stories of the last 25 years or so have been an unraveling of traditional short story structure. In the 19th century the traditional structure was that of a tale, almost a novel in miniature. It started with exposition about the main characters, some background, some statements, often baldly expressed about their emotional and psychological state, then developed through an inciting incident, added complications, conflict, to a climax and resolution.(For examples, see the work of Anton Chekhov (The Lady with the Dog), Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlett Letter) Guy de Maupassant (The Necklace) and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

The majority of contemporary short stories don't do this. Instead they take one of the following forms.

1) A single scene - where an incident is described, with little reference to past or future. Any character backgrounding comes out in their behaviour in the scene itself, with clues to their emotional state and backstory. This form is a moment suspended at a single point in the continuum of a longer story which is left for the reader to speculate on. There is no onus on the writer to resolve any conflicts that come out.

2) A slice of life - which may be a single scene or several scenes chosen to be representative of a character, a theme, a relationship. The writer may choose to resolve conflicts or not, in the story itself, or leave any resolution to be enacted in the mind of the reader.

3) An illumination of a state. The state can be a mood or a character's psychological or emotional state, which is the legacy of an event. The event may or may not be detailed in the story itself, or the story may just be an exploration of the fallout from the event. What plot is there is often in emotional or psychological time, with events coming and going as they appear to the narrator/protagonist, not in some kind of chronological order. This is a complex style and structure - here is a good example. Wheat, by Tracey Slaughter.

I'd like to revisit the subject of short stories in more detail in coming posts. Watch this space. 

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