The Short Story by Robert Saunders Dowst (1918)

in Classic Articles on Writing/Historic Articles by Authors

Definition—Two Types—Dramatic Short Story—Atmospheric Short Story—Origins—Assumed Unity and Singleness of Effect of Dramatic Short Story—General Technique of Form—Characterization—Interest and Too Great Simplicity—Limitation upon Complexity—Length—Coherence of Form—Compression.

A story is a fiction with a plot, as distinguished from a tale, which is a string of incidents that happened to happen to the characters. In the story the events are linked together by the natures of the people concerned; personality influences event and event influences personality. And the short story is, simply, a short story, a fiction, possessing a plot, that could be and has been told adequately within brief limits. A plot is a dramatic problem. Therefore the short story may be defined roughly as a story embodying a dramatic problem which can be stated and worked out adequately as to all its elements of personality, event, and setting within relatively brief limits.

The general nature of the short story having been stated, it is necessary to qualify and distinguish. Fiction is concerned primarily with the intrinsic interest and significance of man and his acts, the elements of drama, but there are three fundamental types of story, two of which are normal and the other abnormal. The types are the story stressing personality and the story stressing incident, which are normal, and the story stressing atmosphere, which is abnormal in that persons and events are subordinate to the emotional value of the whole for a reader, which is usually determined by the setting. Personality is the most prominent element of the story of character, and the events are the most prominent element of the story of complication; each story stresses one of the twin elements of drama, the persons and their acts; and each story possesses both of such elements. That is, both the story of character and the strict story of plot—plot as a mere sequence of events—have some dramatic value. But the strict story of atmosphere has no dramatic value; its nature forbids that it should. The emotional effect is usually determined by the setting, and the human traits that will intensify a setting—and with which the characters must be invested—are not such as to give rise to a dramatic opposition between the persons. The definition of the short story as a story embodying a dramatic problem which can be presented adequately within brief limits does not cover the short story of atmosphere.

In other words, there are two types of short story, apart from the three types determined by the placing of emphasis upon any one of the three fictional elements of personality, event, and setting—the dramatic short story and the short story of unity of effect. The dramatic short story is either the story of character or the story of complication of incident; the short story of unity of effect is the story of atmosphere. The two types here contrasted—the dramatic story and the atmospheric story—could not be covered adequately or to any purpose by a single definition; they are radically different. In defining the short story I have defined merely the dramatic short story, and in discussing it I shall confine myself largely to the dramatic short story likewise, for the story of atmosphere has been considered elsewhere.

Knowledge of the origin of the two basic types of short story, the dramatic story and the atmospheric story, will clarify the writer’s conceptions of the types. The story of atmosphere, or story of totality of emotional effect on a reader, was first consciously perfected by Poe, wherein lies America’s single claim to having originated a distinct literary type. By following in prose his poetic philosophy—as stated in “The Philosophy of Composition”—Poe produced such stories as “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which have little or no real dramatic value, yet which are certainly not mere tales, for they have plot- or story-value. As I have stated, in the case of the story of atmosphere, such as these two of Poe’s, the climactic ascension of the particular emotional impression to the point of highest intensity supplies much of the plot-or story-element of the fiction.

On the other hand, the dramatic short story, embodying a true plot, may be said to have originated in France. The type was suggested by Poe’s work; the mere mechanical hint, that of a brief story, was received eagerly by French writers, and the dramatic element, entirely altering the fundamental character of the fiction, was speedily injected. The result has been that the offshoot has entirely overshadowed the parent stem, and this simply because there is so much more material for the dramatic story than there is for the story of unity of emotional effect. The story of atmosphere is most difficult to do well, so that relatively few are published; it has no wide popular appeal, with the same result; while the range of emotional effects is narrow that may be produced on a reader by a work of fiction, that is, there is less material for the story of atmosphere than for the dramatic story.

It is time now to notice a matter concerning which much glib statement has been made, the “unity” and singleness of effect of the short story. The usual remark of the writer or talker on short story technique is that the ideal or typical short story will manifest the dramatic unities of time, place, and action, and will produce a single effect. But it is notorious that only relatively few stories do manifest the dramatic unities, so the speaker or writer goes on to say most lamely and indefinitely that the laws of technique must give way to the requirements of any particular story. Grant me for the moment that the dramatic unities are not essential to the perfect short story, that Maupassant’s “The Necklace” is as technically perfect a short story as Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the viciousness of preaching thus to the short story writer becomes apparent. The only definite thing he is told, that the unities are essential to the perfect short story, is false.

The vice of such statement originates in failure to distinguish between the two types of short story, the story of atmosphere and the dramatic story. The story of atmosphere, of totality or unity of emotional effect on a reader, can hardly escape manifesting the dramatic unities of place, time, and action. The emotional effect will usually be that of a single definite place, for reasons brought out in the preceding chapter; the time will be brief, on account of the inherent difficulty to sustain the atmosphere; and there will be little complication or prolongation of the action, for the same reason. But the dramatic short story is not subject to the limitations imposed by the necessity always to regard atmosphere, or emotional effect, and it may or may not manifest the dramatic unities.

The way to state the relation between the matter of unity and the dramatic short story, the short story of true plot, is this: on account of the limited space available, the plot for a dramatic short story will tend to involve relatively few shifts of setting, relatively short spaces of time, relatively few and relatively simple events, and relatively few persons. No other sort of plot can be adequately handled within narrow word limits. The short story must be written with verbal fullness and elaboration, that its phrasing may not be bare and unlike the shaded contours of life, and the plot complicated as to any one of its three elements of personality, setting, and event cannot be adequately developed in a few thousand words. The short story is the result of just conception and selection, rather than of mere rhetorical compression. Stevenson’s “Markheim,” for instance, is written more elaborately than almost any other episode in fiction, long or short, that is, any other episode of equal length in point of the time it would take to happen in actuality.

Poe was the first writer to say much of anything definite about his art, and commentators on technique who have followed him have merely expanded his thesis rather than said something new. The only trouble, in relation to the short story, is that Poe spoke of unity and singleness of effect with his own peculiar type of short story in mind, the short story of unity or totality of emotional effect, the short story of atmosphere. When he stated that the short story—his type of short story, the short story of atmosphere—should possess unity and produce a single effect, he stated the truth, but when it is stated that the short story meaning both the story of atmosphere and the dramatic short story—should manifest the unities and produce a single effect, the statement is false. In the first place, the dramatic short story is not the result of the same technique as the story of atmosphere; in the second place, the unity stated by Poe to be essential to the story of emotional effect is not the same thing as the old dramatic unities, which are mechanical. The fact that the story of atmosphere can hardly escape manifesting the dramatic unities does not amalgamate the two matters. Poe’s unity is unity of emotional effect: the dramatic unities are singleness of time, place, and action, a matter that can be preserved by anyone, though usually at the expense of the interest of the story. How few have written and can write so as to produce a unity of emotional effect need only be suggested to enforce my point.

The matter would not be worth treating thus minutely were it not for the strong tendency to mislead of any statement that the short story must manifest the dramatic unities. Within very elastic limits, the unities are a convention of the drama, but they are not a convention of fiction, long or short. The art of the stage and the art of the story differ radically; the advantage given the play by the conciseness of its spectacle is compensated by the advantage given the story by its more inclusive character and greater flexibility. I have said that a plot or story of plot is a dramatic problem, and the word “dramatic” has connotations of the stage, but what was meant was that a plot is a conflict between persons, within a single person, or with nature. It was not meant that a plot or story of plot is subject to the conventions of the stage. The art of fiction is infinitely more inclusive and flexible than the art of the stage, and the writer of fiction must utilize to the full the advantages of his art in order to compensate his work in the eyes of a reader for its weakness—relative to the play—in vividness and body.

One may say that the spectacle of life is infinitely various, so that the writer of fiction has plenty of material for stories at hand. But life, despite the efforts of Mrs. Grundy, is subject to no conventions, social, moral, or artistic, and the short story writer who brings all his ideas to the dramatic unities as a first test will winnow little grain from the chaff. When the short story writer finds a hint for a story he should consider whether he can bring out with his few thousand words all the matters necessary to the fiction’s having full effect on a reader, but the less he frets about any abstract unity or singleness of effect the better. The words have a plausible sound in discussion, but they mean nothing, except in relation to the story of atmosphere. It means something to say that the dramatic short story should possess unity of tone; it means something to say that it should possess unity of style; but it means nothing to say that it should possess unity, simply, unless the dramatic unities are meant, and in that case the statement is false. Some short stories happen to possess the dramatic unities; more do not.

By the very nature of the conceptive process the writer seizes his story ideas in terms of persons, events, or atmosphere. And when he has a definite story idea he first should develop it so as to give it maximum effect, and then should consider whether he must write a short story or novel or romance to give his developed idea adequate expression. The writer who starts with some abstract knowledge of fiction technique, and seeks to vivify rules of construction into a definite story, will accomplish very little. Good stories are not conceived that way, and good writers do not go to work that way. The story is the thing, and it does not lie between the covers of this or any other book on technique. It lies in the people and events the writer sees in reality or in imagination, and to find it the writer must turn to life or to his dreams. After the story is found the writer’s knowledge of and facility in technique will come into play in the work of development and execution.

The broad outlines of the technique of the dramatic short story were implied in the statement that it will tend to involve relatively few shifts of setting, relatively short spaces of time, relatively few and relatively simple events, and relatively few persons. Its unity of tone—which is characteristic of the short story, dramatic and of atmosphere—results from its simplicity as to persons, events, and setting, and its unity of style results from its unity of tone. The elements of the short story are less complex than those of a longer fiction, and the fact causes all the modifications in the general technique of fiction as manifested by the short story. In the short story, for instance, there is less opportunity than in the novel to manage secondary events to build up character or personality. The whole process must be swifter, and the writer must depend largely on direct statement and description.

This matter is of some importance. As to setting, the technique of the short story and of the novel are identical; there is merely less setting in the short story—speaking quantitatively—because the type involves fewer shifts of place, even if the action does not happen in one place. And the technique of the short story and of the novel are identical as to action; the short story merely involves fewer episodes. But as to the people, the technique of the short story and of the novel differ. It is true that the short story involves few persons, relatively to the novel, just as it involves relatively few shifts of setting and relatively few events, but the difference is more than quantitative, and so affects the technique of the type. It affects the technique of the short story because characterization is a matter achieved by showing the person in action, by describing him, by transcribing his speech, and by stating his qualities directly. That is to say, characterization goes on in every part of the story, except where setting is being touched in. And it will go on there, to a slight extent, if the environment is given in terms of the impressions received by the character affected. On the other hand, narration, or verbal treatment of the event, and the description of setting, or verbal treatment of the environment, are more or less distinct and separate elements of a story. The matter is delicate, and I run some risk of being obscure here, but the net result of the simplicity and separateness of both the narrative and the descriptive process is that the narrative and descriptive technique of the short story is the narrative and descriptive technique of fiction generally. Writer of novel and writer of short story can narrate a murder in much the same way, or touch in a countryside with identical technique, but they cannot handle their people similarly.

Perhaps the point can be made clearer. The writer of a novel and the writer of a short story alike must invest their people with the vivacity, distinction, and concreteness of real men and women, but where the one has five hundred pages, let us say, the other has only five thousand words. It is a task difficult enough at best to precipitate a man in a few drops of ink. It is also difficult to narrate the man’s actions with some of the vividness of reality, or to touch in a real world for him to move in. But note this. Where the novelist must deal with a large number of events and scenes, the short story writer has only a few to handle; he has about as many words available for each of his few as the novelist has for his many. That is not the case in creating characters. The process of characterization must permeate any fiction, forwarded by the narrative matter, the dialogue, the expository matter, and the descriptive matter alike. And the novelist has five hundred pages to initiate, reinforce, and complete the illusion of personality where the short story writer has but five thousand words. The novelist has more people to vivify, it is true, but not enough more than the short story writer to give the latter an equal chance if he follows the same technique.

It all comes down to this: a story, long or short, can be broken up into its several episodes and scenes, which are mechanically separable, but its people move through the whole. Since any event or any scene is in a sense a mere item of a story, not universally influential, the technique of handling event or scene simply as such is much the same, whatever the type of story. But since the element of personality is universally present and influential in a story, the technique of characterization varies with the essential nature of the story as a whole.

The result of the condition upon the general technique of characterization as applied in the short story must now be stated.

I have said already that the whole process must be swifter, but that is not very definite. Expanded, the statement amounts to saying that the short story writer cannot develop personality with the fullness and diversity of the novelist; he must concentrate his verbal resources upon the trait developed by the few events of the story and upon a few striking peculiarities of appearance and speech. As to the strict trait of character, the story itself will point the way. It will have one main situation, and probably that one will be of such a nature as to involve relatively simple attributes of soul in the persons concerned. As to the more superficial matter of making the persons seem real and lifelike, the writer must describe sharply, rather than at length—as Stevenson did in “A Lodging for the Night”—and must make his people talk as individually as possible. The general aim, of course, is the same as in the longer story, to present real characters of unique appearance and speech. And the writer’s resources—again of course—are the same, but the brevity of the short story forces him to concentrate upon one matter of soul, one matter—or at most a few—of appearance, and one matter of speech. The whole art of fiction is selective; even the novel cannot present justly the complete man; and the short story, simply because it is short, is the most highly selective fiction of all. It cannot present the whole man, but it must seem to. A reader will not feel the absence of traits not involved in the events, and by vivid and brief descriptive touches, reinforced by unique speech, any character can be invested with what will be accepted as a complete physical presence.

As stated, the story itself, if a true story and not a tale, will show its writer that his expository matter or direct statement as to character must bear only upon the traits involved in the plot-situation of the story. The necessity is not peculiar to the short story, but it is more insistent than in the case of the novel. The other points of the technique of characterizing in the short story are purely verbal, and the writer’s success depends upon his faculty in pungent description and in handling speech.

The remainder of the technique of the short story, apart from the matter of creating real men and women, is not verbal, but constructive, and is implied in—as it results from—the brevity of the fiction. Unlike the novelist, the writer of the short story has space for nothing but the story. He cannot drag in by the heels episodes unessential to the story solely for the sake of their intrinsic interest; he cannot waste words upon unessential persons. He is faced by two facts—that his story must be interesting, so that it will probably have to involve considerable complication as to persons, events, and setting, and that it must be told with enough verbal fullness and elaboration to give it the body and seeming of life. Trimming between the necessity to interest and the necessity to invest his story with reality, the writer first must find an interesting story, and then, in writing, or in developing and writing, must be vigilant to transcribe nothing unessential to the story, or he will be forced to exceed his space-limit.

The process comprehends most of the technique of the short story. The whole difference between it and the novel is that the novel is more discursive. Much of the novel’s interest, quite permissibly, may inhere in persons, episodes, and matter generally without relation to the main thread of the story. But a short story’s interest may not inhere in matter foreign to the thread of the story. That is the case not because of any arbitrary requirement that it be a “unity,” but simply because a short story cannot be told adequately as to the story without exceeding the word-limit if unessential matter be incorporated with it.

The fallacy, whether on the part of commentator on technique or writer of fiction, in approaching the short story as some sort of artificial fictional unity lies in the implicit disregard of the necessity to interest. The first necessity is that a story interest, and to meet it the writer must devise some complication of persons, motives, and events, and usually that will involve some diversity of setting, or change of place. The second necessity is that the story be told so as to create the illusion of reality, and to meet it the writer will be forced to exhaust his few thousand words. The necessity that the story interest can be met only rarely without violating the unities of the drama; therefore they are not a convention of the art of the short story. Apart from the matter of unity of tone and style, the short story is a unity only in that it is one single story, nothing more, nothing less. That is, each word is essential to the fiction as such. But that does not mean that the story or plot is a unity in itself. It may involve much diversity in the three fictional elements of personality, event, and setting, the last of which includes time.

I emphasize the matter because the beginning writer is apt to devise stories too simple to present a real problem to awaken a reader’s interest. There is also the converse fault, of course, that of devising a story too complicated to be given adequate expression in few words, but this fault will tend to correct itself through the difficulties the writer will meet in execution. The other will not tend to correct itself. The more simple the story, the easier it will be to write with some approach to adequacy. The writer who fancies that a short story must involve as little as possible diversity of people, events, and places may very well continue to devise stories too simple to awaken interest, however effectively they may be told. He will have no trouble in writing each one within his space, but he will have trouble in getting them published, for each will be lacking in essential fictional value, the capacity to interest. Here I can make only general statement, and it is impracticable to dwell on the fact that real and highly individualized characters will invest a simple story with all the interest of a more complicated fiction. The general truth, however, is that the interest of a tale lies in the problem it presents and solves, that a problem involves complication and diversity, and that a writer may go astray who seeks only the dramatically unified and simple plot. His work will interest a reader if he creates real people, but the capacity to do so is a rare faculty. At the bottom of it, a story, long or short, is a sequence of events; they should not be too simple, for, apart from the human element, simplicity presents no problem to awaken a reader’s interest.

The sole limitation upon the complexity and diversity of the short story as a whole is the difficulty to develop in few words a plot complicated as to personality, event, place, or time. Accordingly, the plot suitable for a short story will tend to be simple, but it need not be so simple that the events, apart from the people, will not awaken interest. Moreover, the unskilled writer who has experienced the difficulty to develop an interesting plot in few words will be astonished by the results of a little forethought and careful planning before writing. Elimination and suppression of inessential and relatively unimportant matters will enable him to set forth adequately, though in a few words, a story of real body and interest.

The whole discussion should awaken realization of the fact that the short story is the most difficult form of prose fiction. To the general difficulty of all fiction it adds the difficulty that whatever is done must be done in a few words. The writer of novel or romance has only to interest, and his space is practically unlimited. The short story writer must interest, and he must interest in few words and pages. He must depend solely on his story; he has space for nothing else. He should remember that each item of unessential matter given place by him will lessen by just so much the number of words available to give the real story verisimilitude and consequent interest and appeal. To take the conceptive aspect of it, in devising a short story he should remember that inclusion of any accidental and unessential matter must lessen by just so much his power to awaken interest by some diversity and complication in the real story.

When a story idea is found, the writer should determine precisely what matters must be brought out if the fiction is to have full effect on a reader, who will have only the writer’s words to go on. The writer should realize precisely what elements of personality are significant in relation to the main situation, which is the story in little, and should prepare to develop the motives and traits involved. He should determine precisely what will be the most effective physical movement for the story, the nature and order of events, also the setting or environment. He should consider the essential nature of the main situation, or climax, and, if he cannot manage that preceding events shall prepare a reader for it, he should prepare from the beginning of the story to hint what is to come, as Stevenson does in “Markheim.” Finally, he should grasp the developed story as a whole, and be vigilant to transcribe nothing unessential, for if the story is real fictional knot or problem, and worth while, he cannot do so without sacrificing essential matter or exceeding his limits.

The physical brevity of the short story certainly has great influence in the direction of simplicity. But its brevity does not subject the dramatic short story to the conventions of the stage. It must be a unity, so-called, but only in this, that every word must be necessary to develop the story-idea, which, in itself, may be simple or somewhat complex. The short story of atmosphere is another matter.

Coherence is a word much better than unity to express the most significant attribute of the dramatic short story. The form is coherent in that every word, line, and sentence has relation to the story itself. The novel is relatively incoherent in that it often embodies whole stories without relation to the main story, or matter without relation to any story at all. The most pungent way to put the point of the whole discussion is to state that the short story, viewed merely as a sequence of words, is coherent in that each word serves to forward a single story-idea to its conclusion. That is not to state that the story-idea itself is coherent or a unity. It is a unity in that it is single, one story, but the one story need not manifest unity of time, place, and action. The sooner the short story writer clears his head of any notion that the verbal coherence of the dramatic short story involves some indefinable unity in its matter or story-idea, or some equally indefinable singleness of effect, the better for him, his work and pocketbook.

There would be no great profit in summarizing here the items of technique treated in other chapters. All are of use in the short story, functioning as in other forms of prose fiction. Apart from the matter of characterization, the peculiar technique of the short story is constructive and supervisory, rather than executive. The writer must make certain that he has one story and nothing else, for only one story can be adequately developed within brief limits. In writing, he must take care to transcribe only story-matter, for the same reason. But in narrating an event, or in describing a setting, after he has determined that event and setting are essential to his single story, the writer may employ the technique of general narrative or descriptive writing. Whatever the form of fiction, its aim is the same, to show real men and women doing in a real world the things one might expect from their natures and the circumstances of their lives.

In the chapter on story types something was said as to the current insistence upon the verbal compression of the short story. As stated there, the short story, dramatic or atmospheric, is not the result of mere rhetorical compression, rather of the inherent brevity of the conception. The executive technique of long story and short are identical, except as to the single matter of characterization. The short story develops its fewer episodes with as much rhetorical elaboration as the novel develops its many, and the writer who conceives that a short story can be produced by verbal paring and filing is on the highroad to failure.

Richard Edwards has a BFA in Creative Writing and Journalism from Bowling Green State University and an M.S. in Education from the University of Akron. Managing editor of Drunk Duck, poetry editor for Prairie Margins, reporter for Miscellany, Akron Journal, Lorain Journal...check our About Us page for more. Also here is info on our On Classic Articles

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