More Thoughts on the Short Story: Back to Basics

The short story is a source of consternation to many struggling writers. The definitions, word counts, how-to’s differ from commentator to commentator. So what’s a writer to do?

She can start by getting down to basics.

In his review of Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, Poe virtually defines the genre for his readers. What he calls the short prose narrative should take from a half-hour to two hours, at most, to read, he says. The short story loses force and unity of effect—of terror, passion, horror, etc.—if it cannot be read in a single sitting. (Poe’s “effect” refers to the reader’s emotional response.) What’s more, the story must accomplish this unity of effect while remaining true to the human heart.

The writer, according to Poe, should not start with plot but with the preconceived effect (think: mood) and then invent incidents to support it. The writer’s very first sentence must support this effect, or she has failed at the outset. In fact, every single word and element of the story—including language, plot, and characterization—must contribute to the pre-established design. (Sound familiar?)

According to Poe, the short story is superior to the poem, which shares its brevity of expression, because the prose genre may encompass a variety of modes of thought and expression —the humorous and ratiocinative, for example, which at the time were barred to poetry. Poe, by the way, invented the detective story. Remember The Murders in the Rue Morgue?

In his later Philosophy of Composition, Poe emphasizes the point that a short story should focus on a single incident and one central character, and he insists on originality, which he calls “a merit of the highest class.”  He has something to say about process too, pressing for detailed planning: the writer must have in mind a plot elaborated to its denouement “before any thing be attempted with the pen.” Maybe Poe can hold it all in his mind, but not this lowly writer; I think with my pen or, more precisely, with my computer.

In a nutshell, Poe proposes the writer do the following:

-make sure every word and every element contribute to the chosen effect or mood so that the end leaves the reader with a sense of inevitability

–be brief enough for the reader to complete the story in a single sitting

–focus on one incident and one character

–strive for originality.

Here’s the take-away: though the contemporary short story allows a much broader range of techniques, we probably won’t go wrong if we keep Poe’s constraints in mind.

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