Short Story Reflections: Simplicity


 

In high school English class, one of my teachers taught me that short stories are about single moments or one event/time in a character’s life, as opposed to a novel which covers a whole span. Before that, I struggled with the concept of a “short” story, but using that advice, I was able to write a story focused around one event and received one of my highest creative writing marks in high school. To this day, I keep that piece of advice in the back of my mind when I write short stories. 

It may not be a perfect piece of advice, because of course stories, even short ones, consist of multiple moments and events, but the way I use it is to remind myself that short stories should focus on one major thing and not try to encompass too much. The idea being to keep the stories simple - at least in terms of plot or concept. Too often, I try to over complicate my short stories and have to rein myself in. I tend to want to have too many characters or too large of a setting. Like in my story, “Chasing Chaos” in The Private Vault of Aleister Crowley, which is about a group of four friends making a documentary about an abandoned, possibly haunted, house. Originally, I had six characters with complicated relationships and an entire ghost town. It was difficult to write and felt convoluted. Once I trimmed down my cast, and my setting, everything came out much more smoothly.

I set out this year to focus on reading short stories over novels, journal about them as I go, and then do monthly updates. I’ve had moderate success at this goal. I am journaling about the stories, but I haven’t been posting about my progress. So far this year, I’ve read and reflected on around 70+ short stories of varying lengths, and today I want to reflect on that idea of simplicity in some of the stories I’ve been reading.

In Ai Jiang’s “A Thousand Arms and More” in The Dark volume 104, tasks are manifested as arms, as in with each item on someone’s to-do list, they have an arm sticking out of them which disappears when the task is complete. Through this one concept, Jiang is able to explore so much about class, our endless drive to be “productive” and self-care. By focusing on one thing, it allows her to open up the story to so much more.

Dave Arbagast’s story “A Place for Grandma” of Every Day Fiction, is just one conversation between two people after their grandmother is dead. Throughout the conversation, Arbagast reveals the backstory one piece at a time, pulling the reader in. I read this one through a few times so I could fully absorb everything that happens, and it’s brilliant.

Another wonderful example is Rebecca Roland's "A History of Our Love in Five lies" on Factor Four Magazine. In less than 700 words and focusing on the concept of the five lies, Roland takes the reader on a poignant journey reflecting on the different facets of love as it changes over time.

These stories keep either the plot or their concept to one idea and resist the urge to over complicate. Ai Jiang could have dived into the details of why/how the multiple arms exist, but it’s not needed to convey the themes of the story. Arbagast could have filled pages with flashbacks, but sticking to one conversation and revealing small pieces made the story stronger.

The bulk of the stories I’ve read this year have been in anthologies, and one of those is Orpheus and Eurydice Unbound from Air and Nothingness Press. I plan on writing a full review later, but just a hint - I love this anthology. Orpheus and Eurydice is one of my favourite myths and this book is full of interesting ways to retell this classic tale. The anthology focuses on one myth, and even breaks the myth down further into sections focused on each individual “event” that takes place in the Orpheus myth. Using this one myth, twenty-seven authors were able to take that one concept and spin it into so many different stories and genres.

Short stories allow for experimentation and exploration of themes and ideas in ways that differ from their longer counterparts. Novels branch off into subplots and side characters, but short fiction has to keep itself focused, which might sound like a negative limitation, but when a story keeps one major aspect like theme, concept, or plot simple, it allows the story to open up in other illuminating and wonderful ways.

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