Novels still get most of the attention, but short stories are standing out in the crowd. Short stories enjoyed great cultural popularity in recent modern history, a phenomenon that was aided by technical innovation.
The first stories I made up myself were short ones. As a writer, part of the appeal for me is the formal challenge: creating characters, a complete miniature world, tone and voice, plot, in such a small space. Every word counts. A novel is a big investment for a writer: six months, a year, longer, in the company of so many people. We carry them around with us while we plot and plan and revise, in supermarket queues, in the shower, as we fall asleep. A short story is a holiday romance. There is a sharpness, an urgency, in-built. Short stories have to contain tight plots and believable (but not clichéd) characters, and they have to convey everything concisely. This is no easy feat, which is why reading and understanding short stories offers so much value.
About a year ago, already an avid novel reader, I resolved to read more short stories. My rationale was simply that I hadn’t read enough of them, and should be more familiar with the form. After reading more than 60 of them, I realized I intuitively understood far more about the craft of writing fiction than I ever had before. It wasn’t an instantaneous progression, but as I worked on my own short stories as I fleshed out characters, as I reworked plots, my writing became more fluid and I felt like I had a sudden wealth of stories to draw on. I’ve been reading and writing regularly since I was 13.
Short stories aren’t missing any important elements of fiction; they still contain a complete story arc and developed characters, they still reach a climax and include a denouement. While they may be notably shorter in length, short stories include all the same elements as novels, crafted extremely well to preserve space. This is why I was suddenly improving so rapidly. A regular short story reader can quickly become familiar with hundreds of plots, hundreds if not thousands of characters, new settings, styles and other elements of the story. Appreciating each short story requires a little extra focus and dedication, and this makes it easy to say, “another time maybe. Today, a novel.”
I’m sure if I was really dedicated I would read my story before making coffee, but that’s too extreme for me. So I get up, make coffee, and start my day by drinking coffee and reading a short story. As it probably takes me 20 minutes every morning to drink my coffee anyway, it doesn’t even impact my morning schedule. If you’re a habitual morning rusher, then maybe get up 10 minutes earlier. You don’t need a lot of time.
Indeed, the short story market is growing. While shorts never went away, they weren’t commercially viable with printing costs. The eBook revolution has given this powerful medium a resurgence, to the benefit of both writers and readers. It’s not justified to say that we face the revival of short stories. But short stories may turn out to be the most effective tool of a revival of reading in digital times. Maybe, for avid readers, short stories will never become a serious kind of read. But for occasional readers, they can be a serious chance to find some space for reading books among other daily activities.
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