This is a reaction I get from a lot of people. And that’s OK. I’m always happy to leap to the defence of the little guys and try and introduce some new material into everyone’s literary diet.
Generally, we’re trained to consume two types of stories – The four-act structure prevalent in movies, novels and plays, and the empirical event, in chronological order, found in news stories, anecdotes and biographies.
There are many more types of stories of course, but the time pressures of modern life and the information overload from media and entertainment can leave us confused and frustrated with different structures. If people know and trust a good crime thriller or a holiday romance book, why should they bother to learn about these tricky little stories?
Even though they are quicker to read, and often free, short stories remain on the fringes of popular literature. In short fiction, you may not get that satisfying feeling of seeing the baddie defeated, or the curtain come down after events wrap up neatly, but you can obtain a lot of meaning from them. So, let’s learn about some different structures.
Novelists rarely worry about where to begin and end, but that paramount to the short story. How can the writer frame a story against a longer period of time? It’s something I obsess about, imagining I’m holding a viewfinder up to the events, or a particular character’s life: the objective being to help the reader see more than is actually there. Whereas in a novel you might read between the lines for meaning, in a short story, you have to cast your mind outside of it.
But while finding the right angle may be torturous to short fiction writers, what goes on inside the frame is a regular party. Techniques and methods which are troublesome or frowned upon in longer fiction are suddenly unlocked and available: copious dialogue, second-person point of view, inanimate or unusual narrators, present tense, irregular chronologies, epistolary and many more. Come on in and join the party.
So back to the question – what’s the point? Well, in his amusing talk on the structure of stories, Kurt Vonnegut highlights the typical shapes of narratives. While what he says is true for longer-form stories, the short story often has a different outcome, like a candle burning down rather than an explosive ending. Readers getting enjoyment and meaning from these other outcomes is what makes them worth reading.
Below, I’ve listed a few types of story, which you won’t find so much in those nasty big books. Each story type is not for everybody, but it might help you decode the meaning behind forms of fiction which don’t exist at airports or the Tesco bestsellers section.
Stream of consciousness – Reading an unbroken train of a character’s thoughts may not sound appealing, but hear me out. The format allows you to get deep into the characters hopes, fears, beliefs, prejudices and morality. In a short space of time, you can build as much empathy as with the main character in an entire book. And none of that pesky plot or dialogue gets in the way. One piece that has always remained burned into my brain is ‘Story’ by Lydia Davis, in which a woman plays describes an entire relationship, without exiting her thoughts. It is only three pages long.
What’s the point? Get inside a character’s head and develop empathy.
The vignette – Simply put, a vignette is a picture; a glimpse into another life. It is not even necessarily a story. I know it’s not surprising to hear me to recommend Chekhov, but he really did invent the story where nothing happens (sorry Seinfeld). The characters are so pure and vivid that at the end of reading you feel like you have learned everything and nothing. It always leaves me grinning because I feel I know and love the characters, even though they are nineteenth-century Russians. The reader is both transformed and the same. Joy is a short example. Perhaps you’ll see what I mean.
What’s the point? Get a snapshot of different lives.
Epistolary – These are the stories written not told, often in letters, diary entries, or text messages. There are famous examples in longer form, but over the course of 300 pages, the style can become wearing. Letters however, neatly solve the problem of mobile phones bridging the information gap. In movies, characters are forever running out of battery, signal or plain throwing their phones away to address the plot-busting question of ‘why didn’t they use their phone to tell someone or look it up?’ With letters, there is always something hiding between the lines and information that one character is unaware of. Conversely, relationships conducted only through messages (even phone messages) can misconstrue feelings or information.
One good use of the form is for humour. I’ve read a good few competition winning stories, that use letters as a way to create humorous misunderstandings. Peter Ewing, the winner of the 2016 Christopher Fielden Competition, wrote a hilarious story about chess club members requesting a physical duel.
What’s the point? Enjoy the back and forth between characters who are missing information.
Irregular chronology – My example here would be Pulp Fiction, the Tarantino movie. Really, it’s a series of short scenes which are linked by certain events and characters. Each scene is its own short story, a glimpse into the unknown lives of crooked boxers, hitmen and drug dealers.
Flash fiction (generally under 1,000 words) often tells stories with different timeframes. Dropping readers into the middle of a narrative, and having them scrabble around for information to cling onto makes well-constructed flash fiction a thrilling ride. This year’s Best British & Irish Flash Fiction list has just been announced. Take a look and see if you can spot any funky timelines among the nominees’ stories.
What’s the point? Have fun putting the story back together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Theme – Many short stories give precedence to theme over plot. This is what I think most novel readers can find challenging or frustrating. Yet, whereas an abridged version can cheapen the meaning of events, it can deepen your thoughts about a particular theme. An example that springs to mind is A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka. On first reading, the theme is quite obviously hunger, poverty and Kafka’s take on society’s view of the poor. Yet, from the perspective of the caged ‘artist’, we can consider the themes of pride, alienation and what art actually is.
What’s the point? You get to think about how the theme applies to modern events or your own life.
The Frame story – This technique is to tell a story within a story. One famous proponent of this was Jose Luis Borges, the Argentine writer. In his excellent series on the short story, Chris Power discusses Borges’s use of labyrinths and distancing himself from being a fiction author through adding the layer of another storyteller. I think of Borges as more of a philosopher who exposed his work in fiction, as well as other forms.
What’s the point? It allows writers to tell fables without seeming trite. Readers can gauge reactions to the inner story from the storytellers.
Incompatible genres – When setting out to read a short piece, the reader brings different expectations and perhaps a more open mind. We don’t have three chapters to build up incredible sci-fi worlds or fantasy kingdoms, so writers feel freer to just drop in anomalies. Think about it, would you be more accepting of a talking car or a bionic gorilla introduced after a quarter of a novel, or one just dropped into short piece?
The most famous example of this is perhaps Metamorphosis, where everything is normal apart from a man who has turned into an insect. One writer who is particularly adept at including non-real elements in familiar worlds is China Mieville. I recommend buying one of his collections, although Covehithe is an example you can read for free here.
What’s the point? You get to live a little and enjoy the ride. Not every ‘what, why, and how’ have to be answered.
Bookends – This structure is also known as the circular story. The image which the author uses at the start appears again at the end. In other words, we end up back where we started. While this is certainly not revolutionary, it allows for a satisfying feeling of completion, when the wider story of these characters’ lives could continue. Really it is just a mechanic for the writer to hold up the viewfinder frame for the reader to see. I’ll include myself among the literary greats here (ha ha), and link to a bookeded story of my own, The Feature Race. It is also available in my book Foreign Voices.
What’s the point? It feels like there’s a clear start and an end . . . even if there isn’t.
The revelation – I know that short stories and flash fiction have a bad reputation for ‘twist endings’. However, if done well, then they can give greater meaning to the rest of the story, rather than leaving the reader feeling tricked. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is one such example from American Civil War author Ambrose Bierce. It’s a story about war, escape, justice, life and (spoiler alert) death.
What’s the point? After you’ve gotten over the surprise, go back and re-read the story. Look for the clues and breadcrumbs and consider what it means all over again.
Thanks for reading. I hope you take a look at some of the stories. I realise that longer fiction uses many of these techniques too and I’m not asking you to put down the novels that you so enjoy. Just save a bit of reading space for the little guy.
If you have recommendations to add, or other examples of short story structures I’d love to hear from you in the comments.