Short story

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— You may have come here looking for a good read, in which case you're going to be disappointed.

“I'm afraid I've misplaced my anthology.”

~ Edgar Allen Poe on Loss

“These stories are shorter than others. ”

“I have never given adoration to any work except my own, and even that was given grudgingly.”
~ Oscar Wilde on Writing

The dramatic structure of a short story.

A short story is a piece of literature written by an author too poor to afford enough paper to write an entire novel. In order to make do with what paper the author has, he or she must take care not to introduce any details that are not crucially relevant to the plot or that are otherwise interesting in any manner. The official Syndicate of Short Stories, SSS, frowns upon proper character development, and as a substitute has prepared a list of stock characters for authors to use. This "word bank" of sorts includes such favourites as the foolish schoolchild, the reminiscing grandfather, the world-weary fishmonger, the winsome motorbike racer, and the failed parent who is a werewolf. Most of these stock characters date back to earlier and greater writers. Shades of them can be seen in Shakespeare, Dante, and even in Newman, if you know who Newman was, which you don't. Reliance on these stock characters is now at an all-time high, and this is believed to be the source of the short story's recent malaise as an art form.

Annotated example[edit]

The computer technician's wife was a pillar of salt. She swept the porch and stocked the jars with candy, day and night, in the corner store owned by the family, above which she lived in an apartment with her 5 children and 17 grandchildren. And the rain stained the window panes like the sky's cruelest tears. The wrinkles on her face were many and deep, signs of a lost past which haunted her though her arthritis-plagued knuckles. Under a microscope, passers-by could see that there were bacteria in those creases of time, eating away as the mitotic division had all but stopped, and many cells had entered apoptosis. She wanted something new, something more, than what she had here in Gulliver, New Hampshire, the coldest district in town, where the street lamps were lit with candles and the cheese was strung from wires their owners could barely afford. She wanted something exciting, like a motorbike. But all she got was cancer.

[The above is the stock exposition. Its purpose is to prevent the story from being thrown in the trash on a glance. Note the propensity for meaningless imagery and hackneyed metaphor.]

Suddenly, a man rode in on the dusty road that linked the convenience store to the faraway remainder of the metropolis. Sitting behind him was a child, almost ten but not quite eight years of age, who bore a detached look as if the world around her was crumbling into a jar of mayonnaise, and the mayonnaise was store brand. They were riding on a horse, and lo, a man came upon them and he said "Death beckons, and death beckons from a pale horse." But there was no time to worry about that now. There were more important matters to attend to. The button shop was going out of business -- business just wasn't like what it used it be before the zipper -- and Biker Rusty Dude McGee had arrived to pay his condolences, and maybe find a place to settle down, find a family, and grift for years to come. Just then, an obvious extra standing on the street for no reason dropped a very visible golden necklace, with the letters "J, L" clearly inscribed.

[This is the flimsy inciting incident. It gives the characters something to do and worry about until this tired charade ends. It also introduces a clue which you'll need later.]

The old computer technician, who ran the convenience store for some reason, had just died, leaving his entire estate in the public domain due to his last will being composed of the GNU Free Real Estate License. Members of the public, who then jointly owned the building, had invaded for their share of the pie, and in the process confused the whereabouts of the will itself. This was strange as the old maid placed it in a safe place, vouchsafed only to one James Loony. In the will was something that was cause for alarm, and in fact the ancient woman ghosted around her flat for hours in the night, but never told anyone, least of all me, the narrator. And in fact, the crime scene looked a lot like a murder scene, what with all the bagged evidence and stabbing wounds in the tech-wizard's corpse. It sure looked like a murder, but the investigating officer, not considering himself a "fancy, uptown constable," dismissed it as natural causes.

[You have now witnessed the setup of a mystery. All the elements are in place, introduced through ridiculous contrivances, in this whodunit. Of note is how the author manages to divert your attention away from the true culprit of this ghastly crime: himself.]

That sad auburn morning, the entire town went out to the cemetery where the funeral was held. Spring had gone from this town, as it had gone from all others on this side of the equator. As the last rites were said, the coffin was lowered into a hole in the ground, and with it years of convenience and computer technology, now ashes. Just then, the littlest of the attendees sneezed, causing a rather improbable domino effect that knocked over the pall bearer and made him drop both his sandwich and the coffin. The one splatted all over the other as the other hit the ground with a whump, and splintered, revealing the body. The teens occasioned to laugh, starting a perpetual chair fight that lasted until everyone, tall and small, was bloody and bruised. Eventually the constable was called, and order was restored, and now everyone has a good laugh about it, because really nobody liked that guy who died anyway.

[That was a Vinyl Café moment, in case you were wondering.]

Through his inexplicable powers of perception, Biker Rusty Dude knew something was up, despite having never seen evidence of a murder or indeed met anyone in the town. He took it upon himself to discover what really happened. After a cursory inspection of the fingerprint evidence, and a comparison under lockdown at an annual meeting of "Evildoers Anonymous," Biker Dude found two people with identical fingerprints to those on the dagger. The extra arrived with a flourish and dropped the golden necklace again, and the initials made it clear that James Loony, and not the other accused, "Ian O. Centdecoy," was guilty. The police officer, visibly pale and beguiled by his loss to a man of 15 IQ points, placed Loony under arrest.

[With this mess barely hanging together, my pen the author dives straight into the denoueoeumenouent, a confusing ball of smarminess and internal monologue pronounced by the 1-dimensional protagonist to close the piece.]

In the course of his travels here in the gully of New Hampshire, McGee experienced a revelation: he had a long lost great-grandson living above the convenience store. Running to the building, which was now smoking in flames from the hijinks of countless licensees, he discovered the boy, and led him to a better life, years down the road. McGee reflected that perhaps family is like lumber; you have to push it up the stream to the waterfall, or it slides back into the tapering cavern of regret. Finally, having purchased a motorcycle-mounted typewriter, he began to type his memoir, with these words, "The computer technician's wife was a pillar of salt...."

Circular ending[edit]

A visual example of the circular ending. I bet you wish you had this extra sheet of paper...

If more attention is paid to the end of the example above, the astute reader will observe that the story paradoxically never ends. It just goes around and around, my friends. As discussed, this is due to the fact that the writer is too poor to afford a conclusion, and likewise too conclusion-less to make any money off her work with which to buy conclusions. Therefore they must make do with the introductory sentence repeated, a poor patch indeed.

Many scholars call the circular ending, "the downfall of literature." And in fact, during the last decade, it was made illegal in most states and provinces of North America to produce the full expansion of the circular ending, as it would require all the paper and quotation marks in the universe. A short example is legal though:

I loved her deeply, enough to say, "I loved her deeply, enough to say, 'I loved her deeply, enough to say, "...."'"

Literary devices[edit]

  • Metaphor is a more subtle way of lying. It permits writers to hint at a meaning without just coming out and saying it, dammit.
    E.g. She stole my heart like the whore of Babylon, and drove me into pits of evil.
    Meaning: I had an affair.
  • Simile is the same as metaphor, except the author confesses to it.
  • Assonance emphasizes how prose sounds over what it means.
  • Allusion is anything illusory, or clouding the truth. See above.
  • Hyperbole In this, the greatest of all literary devices, the author attempts to cram as many words in between commas as he can before suits from the Chicago Manual of Style come to his house and oh my God they're here...
  • Alliteration "Tommy the Drunk ate the Queen of Scotland and was subsequently arrested for lewd conduct" is a textbook case of alliteration.
  • Deus Ex Machina is where the plot magically comes together at the end of the story. It is Latin for "bullshit".

Identifying a short story author[edit]

Authors of short stories may be identified mainly by their annoying penchant for describing every detail of everything they see:

"As the stranger walked tepidly up to me, like a Jaguar's suspension coiled and about to spring, I observed immediately his ordinary cotton pants, so timorous, so benign, well worn in the stitches from hours of cubicle labour, if you could call it labour. My eye was drawn down to his shoelaces, speaking of a forgotten era when goats inhabited mountains, and grandpa Pete never ventured more than 18 kilometres from his home in the French Alps, where the cheese-eaters dwell. In older times, a buckle would have aboded instead, but no, this, these shoelaces, under-laced rather than over, indicating that army service to one's country was in this dark-faced man's future."

The wise will stay away from these people; their only gain lies in the misery of others. The unwary are boxed into a yarn only 18 in. tall, never to see the thunder or squall.

The Advent of the Modern Short Story[edit]

Many lay claim to the construction of the modern literary short story. Edgar Allen Poe and Anton Chekhov are both frequently mentioned as forerunners of the genre while Vladimir Nabokov is often regarded as its perfector. A brief sketch will be provided of these writers and others who contributed to the nascent form:

Edgar Allen Poe[edit]

Edgar, dreary and confused, a sullen, saturnine speck of wan in a Thanatoid sea of despair. He wrote the following stories:

  • Murder in the Rueful Morgue, what is commonly known as the first mystery story. The butler does it to save you the trouble.
  • A Bunch of People Bleed Through Their Eyes a Poe classic, this story involves the Moncrieff family and a terrible icepick accident. An important lesson is learned though: never juggle while drunk.
  • Time to Die A clock rings and a bunch of people die. This is simply the previous story re-released with some character names changed.
  • Vengeance is a Tasty Hamburger Later made into a Quentin Tarantino Movie.

Anton Chekhov[edit]

Anton, a well-stout Ruskie lad enjoyed the foam of the sea, the old potato spirits, and the skins of dead trees. He also wrote short stories like these:

  • Russian Bear Fights Russian Man: Russian Man Convicted of Assualt One of Chekhov's earliest pieces and admittedly not one of his best...
  • A Dalliance There occurs a dalliance. None is hurt.
  • A Clerk Does Nothing in an Office A Chekhov classic which would become the norm of Russian Literature for years, influencing writers such as Dosteovsky and even to some degree Bulgakov. Interestingly, you don't know who Bulgakov is either.
  • Oh My God It's Never Going to Stop Snowing It didn't. This was Chekhov's final short story before succumbing to the effects of snow-induced, vodka-aided depression. He lived to the ripe age of 43, still over twice Russia's average.

Vladimir Nabokov[edit]

Vladimir. What more we can we say about Vladimir? That he loved clowns? That he could speak the language of the bees? That his tie was much too big? We could say all those things but those things are not true. What is true is that he wrote short stories like these:

  • Another Dalliance There occurs another dalliance. This time someone is hurt. Hilarity ensues.
  • The Splendid Butterfly Vs. Mothra Nabokov settles the age old question through his shimmering prose.
  • AAAAAAAAA! What can I say that hasn't already been said? A tale of forbidden love.


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