Today, I am a happy blogger. Today is the day I get to talk about how much I love short stories, and no one can stop me.
Telling stories is a fundamentally human behavior. We think and speak and relate to the world through a lens of narrative. It is how we make meaning and sense out of the baffling experience of being human.
Narrative is an art form, and I firmly believe that in order to create art, one needs limits. At the most basic level, we are limited by the media we choose to work in. A painter or sculptor is limited by the physical properties of her materials. Likewise, an author or poet is limited by the constraints of the language she uses.
Even then, though, we face the tyranny of the blank page. We are paralyzed by choice–if you can write about anything in any way you want, what do you start writing?
So we limit ourselves. And as simple as it sounds, the determined length of our writing affects what we can write and how we write it.
Short stories don’t have time to dick around. A writer must choose her words carefully in order to convey the deep meaning and emotion of a 300 page novel into one event, one place, one small cast of characters. When you pick up a short story, you know that every sentence has survived rewrite after rewrite, every line of dialogue develops a character as well as the plot–every word has purpose in what the author is trying to convey.
As I’ve said before, I love how Pratchett builds upon themes throughout each novel; in “Troll Bridge,” we get that same experience in a few pages.
To paraphrase Clark Blaise, stories say the most about a few moments. “Troll Bridge” could have been a novel. Heck, it could have been its own series following Cohen through his life. We could see the world changing through his eyes in real time.
But I don’t think that would make it better. I don’t think we need to see or hear any more than we do to understand this changed world and its shrinking borderlands. To understand the loss of a way of life, and the people who move with the times and the people who feel that they can’t.
And that, to me, is the beauty of a short story. Literature helps us understand what it means to be human. It illuminates the most noble and mundane and monstrous qualities of mankind. Through literature, we can explore Truth and Change and Faith and a billion things, large and small, that make up who we are.
A short story acts as a focusing lens, and for a moment, we see a small part of ourselves and our world in breath-taking clarity. In a handful of pages, in a few thousand words, we are changed.