“Unlike the novel, a short story may be, for all purposes, essential.”
— Jorge Luís Borges
Recently, I reread the masterful short story "Tell Me a Riddle" by Tillie Olsen, which won the 1961 O. Henry Award. The story’s emotional impact was so powerful that I asked myself how it was possible that a 30-page story could do that. It might seem as if writing a novel is more difficult than writing a short story, but the technical skill employed in Olsen’s story demolishes that argument.
I might be alone in having written novels before I ever got around to writing short stories. In that, perhaps I had fallen prey to the attitude that only novels could be important. I began writing short stories only to satisfy the requirements of a writing class. I complied, but still clung to my first love, writing novels. Over thirty stories later, though, I looked up and said, wow, I really like the short story form.
As I began writing this post about the differences between novels and short stories, I quickly found myself speaking in similes. That bothered me until I realized that perhaps no definition, other than word count, evokes the telling distinction between a novel and a short story. So bear with me as I indulge in simile.
A novelist has to be like a symphony composer as well as an orchestra conductor. In those capacities, the writer is in charge of lots of moving parts, in harmony or disharmony, threatening at any point to run away from the group or remaining happily seamless.
A short story is like a single drop of water which freefalls to a new destination; clear, whole, its parts conjoined in compact form, having a subversive power. Over time, like its relative—the torrent—a drop of water will etch through rock. Carrying the water simile further, the torrent is of course the novel, except that sometimes novels are more like eddies.
A short story, like an exposed nerve, can only be borne for a short period of time. A novel is more like a recent bruise, whose healing allows time to reflect on its cause and also to watch its slow healing.
They are both powerful forms. Indeed, two of my favorite movies of the previous decade bring home this point for me. Both Oscar-winning movies were developed from previously published print material. The Hours was adapted from the novel by Michael Cunningham; Brokeback Mountain, from the short story by Annie Proulx. In both cases, I believe the movie caught the essential power of the source material. Did Cunningham then waste his readers’ time since Annie Proulx packed an equally powerful emotional punch in a tenth the length of the novel? I suspect the answer to this will be as individual as the person who opines. Let us just perhaps agree that both source materials were excellent.
By the way, writing short stories did improve my writing craft. I am a much better novelist for it. I would like to think that even though only a few of my stories have been published, I have also turned into a decent short story writer. I suspect that, once I have done some ruthless editing, more of my stories will be published. I have just sent out for consideration a story which is now half of its former size. Let’s see what happens.
I would love to hear your thoughts about the short story form versus the novel form.