Short stories are irresistible. While the novel is sprawling and unfurls over hundreds of pages and weaves together dozens of storylines and twists and characters, there is little I love more than the brutal, screaming impact of a short story. When I talk about short stories in this post, I will be referring to short news stories and short stories of literature.
When I took my journalism course, one of my first days saw me writing 50 word stories. This sounds easy, but it is actually one of the most challenging aspects of journalism for me. Sitting down with information from three different sources and having to compile them into an informative NIB (news in brief) in 50 words is HARD. We had to do this with stories about everything from the theft of church roof tiles to murders, and when you have to explain that a woman was found floating face down in a pond with a suspicious head wound last night in Oveston, it’s difficult to also mention the description of the suspected murderer, the fact he had a dog, the fact the victim was pregnant, the suspected motive and the number for Crimestoppers.
Compare this with a short story of literature. When you only have 5,000 words, every single word must count. There is no room for rambling or for unnecessary paragraphs of page-filling. Every sentence must earn its place, and there is something that appeals to the journalist in me about the precision and succinct nature of a beautifully crafted short story. In a novel, you have space to play with pages of dialogue which isn’t going anywhere (which, despite often being seen as a product of a poor writing technique, I happen to very much enjoy). In a short story, those three pages of deep conversation which contributes nothing to the grand scheme of the plot could take up a quarter of the entire piece.
In both senses of the short story, you have to choose your words very carefully and you have to be a very ruthless self-editor if you’re going to get it right. In journalism, it means deciding which piece of information is irrelevant when you’re 12 words over the wordcount. In literature, it might mean that silence needs to replace a line of dialogue, or that your exquisite description of the protagonist’s walk to work needs you to resculpt and chisel away some of the extra embellishment.
I like to practise what I preach, which is why I prefer short, sharp journalism which gets to the crux of the matter. I’m very time-poor, and when I want a quick overview of everything going on in the world I will always choose i newspaper. Lots of people see it as a bit of a facile choice, but I absolutely disagree. If I only have five minutes to find out about the world today, I want the most important facts. I’d rather get a quick overview of ten stories than read one story in immense detail. Then, if something catches my attention, I can choose to look into it further myself, but ultimately I see this ‘rapid journalism’ as a filter, whereby I actually have time to find out a little bit about everything and not just read those stories deemed to be the most important by the number of column inches accrued.
Likewise, as much as I love reading, it’s hard to find enough time to read significant amounts of a novel in one go. My current favourite book is the truly mind-blowing This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You
by my favourite author of all time, Jon McGregor. It is a series of short stories, and each story is so perfectly written and raw that it has had more of an impact than almost any other book I have ever read. There is one story that springs to mind about a lady in a café who keeps talking to the waitress who becomes increasingly irritated by her idle chit-chat, and it left so many questions in my mind. Another story is a single sentence long, and I love the freedom it allows you to devise your own what-ifs around the limited information you’re given. It’s nice not to be given everything handed to you on a plate as a reader, and I love that everyone will get their own interpretation of each of those stories. It feels like a much more interactive, dynamic way to read, and I highly, highly recommend that Jon McGregor book if you want an earth-shattering introduction to short stories. In fact, that book led to this terrifying Twitter outburst from me:
I stand by that sentiment entirely.
Do you enjoy short stories, or is your bookshelf a novel-only zone? How do you take your news? In a shot glass or long over ice? I’d love to hear your thoughts.