The Unavoidable Shortness of the Short Story

Bigging up the Short Story
November 2008

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Talking up the short story is an admirable enterprise, especially in Britain. The short story has been having a hard time, with outlets for publication shrinking and collections barely able to reach an agent’s desk. The idea of short stories making money has become as quaint a notion as travelling by commercial balloon. It is therefore quite right, and compatible with the national instinct, to support the underdog. We take the side of the short story and try to big it up.

One way of doing this, which short story enthusiasts will recognise, is to suggest that a story is as challenging to write as a novel. Each line must be impeccably precise, no word can be wasted. This is true. The bad news for writers is that every line should be equally meticulous in a novel. There’s no letting up on quality just because more pages demand to be filled. The writer has to write well for longer, at the same time administering the vast bureaucracy of a novel: the structure, the people, the places, the meals, the transport – all the required paperwork.

Or perhaps, as some people argue, the short story has a particular contemporary relevance because these days time itself is shorter, or shorter than it used to be. This may be so, but another contemporary phenomenon is greed, and there’s a sense of frustration that comes bundled with every short story ever written, and especially so in the finest examples. I can recognise why the writer stopped writing, but as a greedy reader if I like what I read I want more and more of the same.

How about another 200 pages or so? At which point, of course, the story may start to resemble a novel. The main limitation of the short story is its shortness, which is one reason the novel has developed into the dominant form it now is.


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The shortness of a short story (there it is again – impossible to escape this defining feature) is also a major attraction to novelists. The same, only easier. The writing process is instantly recognisable – do one thing you can’t do and which is difficult, and when that’s done do another – but this series of difficulties comes to an end much sooner. Writers have a vested interested in talking up the form.

There are other pleasures. It can be interesting to sacrifice some of the what-happens-nextness (the engine of a novel) for more of the what’s-happening-nowness (the focus of a story). Beyond that, the challenge for a writer is not technical but conceptual: identifying and sorting ideas into the right shapes and sizes. I get different types of ideas (thankfully) and because different forms offer different opportunities I’ve written a sports book, a travel book, and a biography. This is how I know that writing novels throws up the most problems quickest, and therefore offers the best apprenticeship for all other forms of creative writing, including short stories.

I came to short stories late, and it may be that my ideas are getting smaller. I’m running out, or running down. I’m also using up what’s left over. Stories are useful for that, too, with the added advantage of avoiding The Best Book In The World syndrome, which can make writing books so daunting. There’s always the temptation to delay work on a book because it has to be The Best Book In The World. Now. Today.

Stories are more relaxed, more comfortably likened to a game of Patience: set up the cards and arrange the conflict (black on red, red on black) – sometimes it comes out, and sometimes it doesn’t. When it does, as with any other type of writing, it’s because the words fit the sentences fit the paragraphs fit the structure fit the form fit the ideas fit the writer. And when that happens, when everything comes together, small is just as likely to be beautiful.