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What I Learned After Reading 100 Short Stories: Part 1
I’ve read about 100 short stories in the last few months. What have I learned from this?
A Note About Challenging Common Wisdom
Among the hundreds of articles I’ve read on writing, almost none even attempt to challenge common wisdom. Like many articles, they are repeating advice heard from somebody who repeated it from yet someone else who heard it repeated from yet somebody else…
My blog, by contrast, will question common wisdom fairly regularly. Please don’t be too surprised when I occasionally offer an opinion that contradicts the top 10 pages of search results on “writing advice.”
On the other hand, there is also a lot I agree with.
The thing is, books by new authors are getting harder to sell every day. If you do what everyone else does, how are you going to stand out from the million other books published every year? Especially with GPT trying to eat your lunch.
Unity of Effect
According to many blogs, a story, and especially a short story, is supposed to focus all of its energy into creating a single desired effect on the audience. That effect is often a particular emotion, but it doesn’t have to be. For example, the intended effect might instead be persuasion or understanding.
This is common enough advice. Some people even define various genres by the emotion or type of effect the book seeks to create.
I dug into this a little, and it looks like this idea was popularized by Edgar Allen Poe — I believe he referred to it as “Unity of effect” in a few of his essays. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but it looks like one of the major ones is here.
Striving for a forceful “Unity of Effect” is a great strategy. Some of my favourite stories rely on this quite a lot. However, many of my favourite stories, and even essays, do not use this strategy at all.
For example, although we are all taught in school that essays need to be tightly focused, one of my favourite essayists (I admittedly don’t read a ton of well-written essays) is Paul Graham, who had this to say about writing essays.
Another example, from long-form fiction, is almost-every-bestselling-novel-or-fiction-series. How exactly do you boil the Red Rising series down to a singular effect? These longer works are fascinating not because of any unity of effect, but rather because they are so multifaceted.
The concept of singularity of effect I think is most valuable in short fiction because of word count constraints. Because it is so hard to communicate anything at all with so few words, you are often better off placing all your powder behind a single shot.
Singular Effects Via Endings
The singular effect that many pieces seemed to strive for were achieved via a twist or revelation near the end of the story. These can be fun, but it makes me feel jerked around, and very few of my favourite stories did this (with one exception, but I can’t say what story it was without spoiling the effect).
Singular Effects Via Consistency
Yet other pieces achieve their singular effect by just hitting the right note on page one and sticking with it until the end of the final page. These stay with me a lot longer. Eg, Salinger, Ellis stand out especially for this. I love it.
Great Short Stories with Less Focus on Singular Effects
Alan Moore’s short stories are like his longer stories: they are usually multifaceted. However, there is typically 1-2 “effects” he delivers extra strongly.
For example, “Hypothetical Lizard” is multifaceted, yet conveys a sense of tragedy as a primary effect… although, it would be a mistake to summarize the story as striving only for that effect. Even “Not Even Legend,” with its extraordinary focus on the uniqueness of individual perspective in group situations, is not entirely focused — there is a whole other aspect to the story about the progression and experience of time.
What if the Effect Succeeds? Should You Read More?
If a story is meant to have an effect on the reader, and succeeds — there is no need to read more until you are ready to move on. If the effect is capable of lingering, then adding a second will “muddy the waters,” so to speak. This might be your intention mind you — perhaps you need a palette cleanser after an unpleasant story, or you want to compare and contrast two stories side by side.
Anyway, when I was reading 2 stories a day, I was muddying the water a little near the end. I am much happier now to take my time with the reading for this reason.
One type of story I’ve come across seem to focus on being evocative or suggestive. They are there to stimulate your imagination and leave your brain something to play with afterwards. Incidentally, all of these I’ve read seem to be in the form of flash fiction.
They introduce something; they give you something to think about; then they leave you alone with your imagination. Most of the time spent with these stories is spent after you read it.
In terms of “unity of effect,” I feel these strive to create an active imagination as their intended effect. Very cool!
Because of this, these sorts of stories are terrible to binge: each new one interferes with the previous. In my opinion, there is no reason to read a new one until your mind has finished playing with the previous one.
A Pleasant Place to Spend Time
Many stories are not about the stories. Instead, they are about the virtual reality experience of being somewhere else, with some characters, in a situation. It’s about spending time in another world, and the story is almost just an excuse to get you in the door.
I think a lot of popular fiction fits into this category — Running with the Demon, for example, could be told in 30 pages if it were a short story. Yet, it is 500 pages because the book is not about the story at all. It’s about spending time with Nest and the other characters in the small town while some vital and unusual stuff is going on.
These stories are almost always, but not always, told in play-by-play mode. Some exceptions include when there is a narrator with a strong voice, and you are enjoying spending time with them as they stylishly tell you an interesting story (some Russian literature feels like this to me).
Not many short stories seem to aim for this, and the reason is obvious: if you are trying to create a “pleasant place to spend time,” then why would you make the experience so short? Most authors chasing this goal realize that they may as well draw things out for a time, extending the effect for the reader — and the reader tends to thank you for it.
There are some short stories that do achieve this however. I think Masque of the Red Death isn’t a very interesting story, but it’s an interesting place to spend some time in; Kerfol, and many other classic ghost stories, achieve this nicely too — especially the Christmas ones in the Chill Tidings collection. Also, Arthur Conan Doyle achieves this effect nicely in most of his work, but I think he has a special advantage here: most of his short stories are about a version of London that he likes, and usually, are filled with recurring characters like Sherlock Holmes and Watson.
Note: most stories are meant to be pleasant to read. To clarify, I’m talking above about stories that focus quite a lot on creating a world where the reader wishes they could get back to. These are just in contrast to stories that focus significantly less on this — eg, nobody wants to spend time in the world of Bret Easton Ellis’s stories. Rather, they read in hopes that the poor characters who are trapped within will find a way out… Likewise, we may morbidly enjoy spending time in the world of The Midnight Meat Train, but the experience of the story isn’t about that — it’s about creating an effect in the reader.
Where are the scary stories? I’ve read probably more than 60 horror stories, but almost none were scary.
I doubt that most horror even tries to be scary or horrific.
I think the idea is, instead, to evoke certain dark feelings. Most commonly, a sense of how the world is a dark place where bad things happen to people.
(Written by people who feel this way, in some sense, deep down, and who are trying to use the genre as a way to explore and battle these feelings? Just speculating.)
Some other goals that pop up for horror stories: to inspire vague dread or suspense, which is not the same as scariness; to create a sense of hopelessness or difficulty; to make you reflect on human nature; to express an emotion with horror merely as the backdrop.
Fear actually seems to be an uncommon goal.
I’ve actually been learning, lately, towards the term “dark fiction” in favour of “horror” for these stories. But “dark fiction” feels a bit heavy for “gothic ghost stories,” which are often fairly light-hearted until the ghost arrives. Hmm.
This article got dramatically longer than I intended, so I’m breaking it up into 2 or more smaller pieces. See you next week!