I’ve blogged before about the key elements of a novel. Tonight I’d like to touch on the short story. For its brevity and eloquence, it’s one of my favorite forms, both to read and to write. Some of the world’s best-known novelists continue to experiment with this short form and for good reason. She’s a tough and relentless mistress, but once a writer succeeds with one, he feels as if the curtain separating us from the divine has parted just for a moment. That all-too brief glimpse is a wonderful and terrible moment because once you have experienced it you are forever trying to capture it again. The rewards for the reader run in parallel. The curtain parts and for the briefest of moments we are in sympathy with each other.
What makes a great short story? As much as I enjoy them, I’m not entirely sure. I’ve studied enough of the classics to know, however, that these masterpieces share something. They all have a major turning point for the principal character. The point at which this character realizes that their world will never been the same. Novels may have multiple turning points but short stories only have room for one. The author, and Flannery O’Connor is the best at this, may hint at the turning point, but it is up to the reader to figure out just when it actually happens.
In a “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” we know that the grandmother is malicious and scheming. We know that she has misled her family into veering off the main highway and causes them to fall into the hands of the notorious criminal, the Misfit. The turning point for the grandmother is the point when she lays eyes upon the Misfit. “His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.” And while later in the story, she will ask the Misfit to pray, she will touch him, call him one of her “babies,” and ultimately be shot by him, for me this first moment of recognition is what sets the wheels in motion for the grandmother.
Another example is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace.” In it, this master of the short story also foreshadows the end of Southern belle Sally Carrol’s engagement to northerner Harry Bellamy. The moment that it ends for Sally Carrol, however, is the moment she finds herself lost in a palace built of ice. “It was an icy breath of death; it was rolling down low across the land to clutch at her.” At that point, you know, you just know that she will not marry Harry and that she will happily return to the Southern “boys” that were beneath her before. And when she does, for the reader, there is that delicious little tickle in the pit of your stomach that tells you that you were right!
One story that I will also love forever is Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog.” And not just because I have a little white spitz, and not just because of the main character’s ironic observations about the people around him, but because of the way Gurov describes the moment he knows that this love affair will be different. “Anna Sergeevna looked at the ship and the passengers through her lorgnette, as if searching for acquaintances, and when she turned to Gurov, her eyes shone.” I’m sure this is even more beautiful in Russian, but for me it’s indelibly lyrical in English. If you have never read this story, you simply must. The ending paragraph is one of the most exquisite of all short stories, even rivaling O’Connor’s fabled (and very different) ending of “A Good Man.”
There are many other key parts of a good story: unforgettable characters, pivotal scenes, and a strong sense of place, but what brings them all together for me is that turning point. I’ve been told several times by good writers that “there’s no money in short stories.” Perhaps that’s true, but the rewards of writing them are endless and lead to the kind of skills that will help you write longer works. So, if you’re like me, who’s working my way through two short stories (not to mention the sequel to my novel), take some time to read over your favorite short stories and identify that crucial turning point. But beware. It’s the moment where your world may also change forever.