First of all, let me start by clarifying what I consider short form literature. For me, short form literature is basically anything that can be read in one gulp, one sitting. In other words short form literature is: poems, essays, short stories, and picture books.
I include picture books on the list because in my mind, if you’re writing fiction, they are probably the best way to study form, character development and story arc. (And I’m not just saying this because I love children’s books). Picture books are constrained in terms of word count and number of pages so writers really have to be artful in the way they craft the story to fit the tight parameters. Also, picture books often read like poetry so they can be a great resource for poets as well, and those of you writing creative nonfiction, consider looking at nonfiction picture books for inspiration.
But why is short form literature so important?
1) You can see the full story develop with a beginning, a middle and an end.
This is great because it allows you to study the story arc: what works and what doesn’t. You can see all the elements of story arc at work in one short piece, from the inciting incident to the climax and denouement. It also means you can examine how the author crafts and accomplishes what he or she does in the story.
2) You can take it in all at one time, and study it both on micro and macro levels.
With short form literature, you can look at nitty-gritty details like word choice as well as over-arching aspects of the story such as character development and plot. Not only can short form literature give you both detailed and big-picture views of the work, but you can see how various elements on the micro level affect things on the macro level.
3) You will see the character develop and change from beginning to end.
You have probably heard this a million times, but in any piece the protagonist has to change. The great thing about short form literature is that you can see what the character is like at the beginning and compare that to what the character is like at the end. In a full-length novel or memoir, you have to read hundreds of pages to see that change; in short stories and essays, that change takes place over a much more condensed number of pages (sometimes even over a short span of words).
4) The stories are focused, often with subplots and extraneous elements often left out.
In shot form literature, there isn’t much wiggle room for subplots or story threads that don’t relate to the main plot. Backstory is limited only to what the reader needs in order to understand what’s going on. Short form is leaner, meaner, more focused and to-the-point.
5) The pieces are short, so every word counts.
When I was in high school, I often questioned my teachers when they said that every word a writer put on the page had to be the exact right word. I mean, did Henry James really agonize over each individual “and” and “the” when he wrote Washington Square? Do you really need to look up every word that Shakespeare wrote in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) to understand what he meant?
Actually, yes. Now that I write, I understand the agony and subsequent victory that comes from trying to find the right word–not the almost-right word, but the absolute-right word to convey your meaning. Sure, in novels and longer works, you have so many words on your hands that one individual word won’t necessarily make or break the story. Long form literature gives writers more leeway. Short form literature puts the onus on the writer to be daring but precise. It’s like a tower of cards. Every piece counts and if you pull out or change a single sentence or a single word, the whole thing tumbles down.
What differentiates good writers from great ones is that great writers write long form literature with that same precision that they they use in short form. Their novels, memoirs, histories and epic poems have as much craft and care over each individual word as they would put into flash fiction, a short essay or a haiku. Words are what distinguish the great from the almost-great.
Here’s a list to get your started:
Short Fiction Suggested Reading
(Elements of craft represented by these stories are in italics.)
- Aimee Bender, “Night Trilogy.” Style / Point of View (POV)
- Truman Capote, “Miriam.” Dialogue / Character / Plot.
- Dan Chaon, “Shepherdess.” Plot / Structure / Style.
- E.L. Doctorow, “Edgemont Drive.” Dialogue / Character / Style.
- Lisa Glatt, “What Milton Heard.” Character / POV / Voice
- Patricia Highsmith, “A Mighty Nice Man.” Dialogue / Character / Plot
- Shirley Jackson, “Mrs. Anderson.” Dialogue / Character.
- Stephen King, “The Gingerbread Girl.” Plot / Structure / Style.
- Ander Monson, “To Reduce Your Likelihood Of Murder.” Style / Voice.
- Alice Munro, “Free Radicals.” Dialogue / Character / Plot.
- Joyce Carol Oates, “Wolf’s Head Lake.” Tone / Mood / Voice / POV.
- Davy Rothbart, “How I Got Here.” POV / Character / Voice.
- Joy Williams, “Charity.” Plot / Dialogue.