The Definition of a Short Story
I’m a writer. I write short stories. They generally fit into the genre of science fiction. That sounds pretty simple, right? No wiggle room or anything. Before reading any of my stuff, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into. Generally, a you would expect my stories to be prose fiction running from 1500-7500 words. But what if that isn’t what you got?
A few months ago, I wrote a story that was meant to be read as a transcription of an interview. It looked like a script with dialogue and some short “stage direction”-like description in [brackets]. It was not prose. It was effectively a script. But was it a short story? I think most people would agree that it was. It wasn’t a very good story, but that’s beside the point.
The point is that you can play around a bit with form in a short story. You probably won’t have much luck trying to sell a 400-page avant garde experimental novel, but you might find a magazine willing to print a few thousand crazy-as-all-get-out words that the editor thinks passes for ‘artistic’ writing. So, yes, there is a bit of wiggle room to that side of the short story definition.
What about word count? The range I gave, 1500-7500 words, is not by any means a standard thing. At the low end, someone somewhere will make the argument for your story being ‘flash fiction’. At the high end, you start getting into the grey area of a novella. What really counts is what your publisher says. If you are trying to get a story into a magazine that defines a short story as 1000-5000 words, then that is what a short story is. You don’t get a say. But still, different magazines have different standards. So again, wiggle room.
I think the best way to define a short story is by what it DOES rather than what it IS. What do I mean by that? I’ll explain by way of a story.
Back at Christmas, my father-in-law was talking about his recent trip to Spain where he stayed with an old friend/colleague. While there, they talked a bit about the definition of an essay. The friend defined an essay as ‘an attempt’. An essay, in this definition, is an attempt to explain, express, or convince. I love this definition. It’s concise and to the point and completely perfect.
The concise, to the point, perfect definition I have come up with for a short story is AN IDEA WITH CONSEQUENCES. A short story should start with a single idea and explore it somehow. It shouldn’t delve too much into character, plot, or setting. It should just focus on a single idea and the consequences of that idea.
I had an idea a while ago: What if spontaneous genetic duplicates of humans started appearing? Put another way, what if you were walking down the street one day and you ran into your clone–someone with identical DNA who was completely unrelated to you, someone who had turned out just like you as a completely random biological event.
So that’s my idea. Now what are the consequences? What would a reality like that mean for politics, religion, science, and just basic human interaction?
I could probably develop this idea into a novel by adding compelling characters, a gripping plot, and a dynamic setting, but I’m not interested in that right now. Right now I want to write short stories. I have an idea, and I’m going to explore it. If the short story is successful (as a story, not commercially), maybe I will develop it further. But first, I need to see if it works on the small scale. I guess a short story, like an essay, is really just an attempt. Go attempt something.