Short Stories are Haunted

First printing: Pikes Peak Writer's Blog

Short stories are haunted

I've heard new novelists say they want to practice writing by trying their hand at short stories before they dive into writing novels. Usually it's a matter of time investment on their part. A novel takes a whole lot longer to write than a short story. Most, anyway.

While it is true both novels and short stories contain similar craft elements, and it is great that short story land presents a practice ground: Short stories are not mini-novels.

The most obvious difference is length. Shortened length means tighter focus. Tighter focus means deliberate selection. Deliberate selection and tighter focus bring short stories closer to poetry than to novels. Successful short stories rely on elements that are elevated beyond the craft basics.

Let's start with the timeline

The timeline of a novel might encompass the time between birth and death; it might cross generations; or it might just cover a few important days in a life. Sometimes a short story's scope can be as large as a novel's, but usually the scope is shorter and only hints at the larger picture outside the story. The larger the scope the more finesse you must use in a short story to include it.

Novels often include back story, contain historical detail, plot lines and subplots that weave in and out. A novel might be told from different perspectives as it creates an entire world and invites you to explore. Novels are broad and question-answering. They transport you to a time and a place; hold you by the hand and say to you: What about this? Here's why that. Here's how and when.

Short stories can attempt the same, yet they are different. And not just shorter. They are the significant moment in the entire timeline of a story.

Joyce Carol Oates says short stories are haunted. They imply more than they explain. They are subtle and force the reader to infer. They are tight. And tighter still.

Think of "Where are You Going, Where Have You Been" by Joyce Carol Oates. "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson. "How Far She Went" by Mary Hood and any story by Alice Munro. If you're a short story reader like me, some of your favorites have haunted you forever. I just reread "How Far She Went" again and I felt the last image in my gut.

So how do you achieve the haunting in a short story so well that the story lives on in your reader for years to come?

Some of the craft elements that play a part in effective short stories and those short story writers need to master are:

  • Tone
  • Image
  • Rhythm
  • The objective correlative


At its core, what is the story about? How can you get that core meaning or question into every single word on the page? In the dialogue and the narration? Into the sentence length and paragraph break? The short story doesn't have time to develop a feeling in the reader. The short story must contain the feeling in every single word.

In "The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot" by Charles Baxter speaks about tone as a matter of inflection.

Inflection is an alteration in tone or pitch of the voice. Alteration in tone can be the difference... between fighting words and a statement of love, using the identical phrase "You're really something," a completely meaningless statement without a tone or context to support it.

Shifts in tone alter the meaning, from sincerity to irony or exasperation to incredulity. Given sufficient urgency, our disbelief is suspended. When someone grabs you by the lapels, you tend to listen to what he says.

That's what the tone in a short story needs to do. It's the writer's job to understand the story at its core and then deliberately pick each and every word to contain the emotion.

Image and Rhythm

The opening sentence of "How Far She Went" by Mary Hood is:

They had quarreled all morning, squalled all summer about the incidentals: how tight the girl's cut-off jeans were, the "Every Inch a Woman" T-shirt, her choice of music and how loud she played it, her practiced inattention, her sullen look.

Right from the start we see image of the girl in the description. We understand where things stand between her and the unnamed narrator, someone of authority against whom the girl is rebelling. The image is clear in the sentence. The tone is disapproving. The conflict is there and hint of history is there as well. They squalled all summer.

If you read that sentence aloud you will also hear its rhythm. Look how long the sentence is. Doesn't that match an entire summer of struggle?

Here's the rest of the opening paragraph. In it you will see more images, more of the same tone and how the author uses rhythm:

Her granny wrung out the last boiled dishcloth, pinched it to the line, giving the basin a sling and a slap, the water flying out in a scalding arc onto the Queen Anne's lace by the path, never mind if it bloomed, that didn't make it worth anything except to chiggers, but the girl would cut it by the everlasting armload and cherish it in the old churn, going to that much trouble for a weed but not bending once--unbegged--to pick the nearest bean; she was sulking now. Bored. Displaced.

Notice also how much Hood gets into that one long, dissatisfied and grumpy paragraph from Granny's point of view. Notice the voice says "unbegged." Granny isn't going to ask and she chastises the granddaughter for not offering.

I don't know about you but I recognize the relationship a young girl has with the unwritten rules of behavior that many of us girls faced in our early life. By the end of the first paragraph I'm already feeling something. I'm identified with the girl who must be visiting her granny for the summer in what feels like some farm-like or rural setting.

Granny calls her 'the girl.' Granny boils dishcloths. She has beans to pick. She resents pretty much everything about her granddaughter, who doesn't know the difference between a flower and a weed. Note the conflict and how much is contained in that first paragraph.

Read the paragraph out loud for the rhythm. Notice the image of the Queen Anne's lace that is treasured by one and a useless weed for another. Two characters who will never see eye-to-eye. Until the end of the story, of course.

The Objective Correlative

Short stories gain a lot when they make use of the objective correlative. T.S. Eliot defined the objective correlative as a set of objects, situations or events which contain the formula for a particular emotion. One of the artist's jobs is to find that formula that best expresses the emotion, but resists moving into cliché.

Think of the movie "Castaway." Remember the painted volleyball, Wilson? And what it symbolized when it floated away at Tom Hank's character's lowest point while lost at sea? Think of Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and what he represented. Or, if you've read the Hood short story, think of the dog and what he represents. Each time the objective correlative comes in to play, and each time it's combined with other symbolic elements in the piece, it is shorthand for the emotion the reader is to feel. Rain at a funeral brings up an emotion but is mightily overused.

Spoiler alert! In the Hood short story, the narrator uses an objective correlative throughout. Take the title of the work "How Far She Went" add to that that the granddaughter does try to leave but the roads are all too short. In the granddaughter's point of view, she thinks there are no roads long enough to get far enough away. Add to that that her father has dumped her there with her grandmother not just for the summer but for school in the fall, too. The symbols of the road, of dead ends and the granddaughter vaulting over the chain link at the end of the driveway to run away. Then there's what the grandmother has to do to save her (I won't spoil this one). All of these are symbols add up to a formula that produces an emotion in the reader.

Then like the excellent writer she is, Hood closes the story with the grandmother walking back to the farm, measured and slow, like she does everything, and this sentence: "The girl walked close behind her, exactly where she walked, matching her pace, matching her stride, close enough to put her hand forth (if the need arose) and touch her granny's back where the faded voile was clinging damp, the merest gauze between their wounds."

This story started with two characters as far from one another as can be and ends with the granddaughter not fighting any longer, but emulating. So what is the objective correlative here? Read the story and see if you can identify it. What are the images, the plot twists, the sentences that produce the emotion the reader feels throughout the story? And how does Hood turn that in that last sentence?

A Process

I challenge my clients who want to write short stories, especially if they are novelists, to write everything out first. All the backstory, all the history, all the world, and more. Write until they understand the story and what they want to say. Then cull or rewrite the instants that absolutely need to be included. When that's done, focus on the language, the symbols, think about the objective correlative and play with the music of the story. How can everything in those few words reflect what the story is about at its core?

To some, this kind of writing might sound like the most awful of chores. But to those of us who love short stories, the challenge to be brief and deep and musical is enticing; to study how each word plays off the previous and the next and how all of it might add up to a reader's experience of the truth we'd like to leave behind; for those of us who are intrigued by that, there is nothing more rewarding than the challenge of writing a short story.

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