Meredy and I have had an ongoing discussion over the past several years about the current state of American short fiction. We have read lots of short stories in a number of magazines, and we have more often than not felt cheated by what we read. We were looking for satisfaction with a plot, entertainment, intellectual challenge, information, a hint of literature--something. But we got nothing. I brought up the subject with the late Marvin Grosswirth the last time I saw him. "Yeah! Yeah!" he said, his eyes opening wide and his forehead coming down, making his eyebrows lash out menacingly. "I know what you mean. The other night I was reading a story that was going along pretty well, then the whole last paragraph was in Sanskrit, for God's sake. Or some other language I don't understand. How the hell can they do that?" What, we all finally wondered, was the case: was it that even magazine editors didn't know what constituted good short fiction, or was it that they were publishing the best of what they got?
The flaw in the story Marvin mentioned was that, for most of its readers, it had no ending. And so it was with many of the stories we had read. They seemed to start nowhere, meander around for a while, then just sort of peter out. They had no beginning, no middle, and no end, a basic structural consideration that short stories must take into account. A plot of the number of words allotted to each element in a short story should look pretty much like a bell curve: a little bit of introduction, a lot of action, and a short denouement. There isn't enough time and space available to a short story for it to ramble and meander.
So perhaps time is the problem? Many of the short stories we read seemed willing to take on epic time spans. A short story should be 3000-5000 words long. How much time can you cover in that many words? The duration of the action in a short story should usually be limited to one day.
Structure also got muddied, it seemed, because of the casts of characters involved. Each character who's supposed to play a major role needs some sort of development (introduction). It's therefore only logical that, given overall space considerations, the more major characters an author tries to use, the more introduction he will need at the expense of action. Add to your "Trivial Pursuit" Arts and Literature cards this question: "How many major characters should a short story have?" Answer: One.
Misuses of time and characters can explain what goes awry in the beginning and middle of a poorly crafted short story. Marvin's slightly bizarre example aside (Sanskrit?), the most common reason that most of the short stories we read failed in the end was that nothing happened to the major character. Here, graven on the last page of your Ecphorizer, is one of the most important rules of short story writing: the major character must be changed because of his experience. This doesn't mean that he should go from rags to riches, or vice versa, or wind up dead. He must have learned, and he must have undergone some kind of internal change.
Thus Meredy and I think that maybe we know what the problem with contemporary American short fiction is. But these four elements of short story writing-structure, time, character, and outcome--are not that difficult to grasp or to employ. And, unfortunately, knowing what the problem is still doesn't offer an explanation for why it is so evident.
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