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About the Short Story

The Three Types of Short Story

What makes the short story so different? It's short, right? Simple as that? Well, yes and no; as a consequence of its brevity, many other things follow. Because the protagonist of a short story doesn't have to be fully 'back-storied', they can be much more anonymous as figures, almost silhouettes. We don't need to know that much about them for them to have a great impact on us. Nor do they need to be the sort of ultimately-likeable everyman that we usually find at the heart of a novel, as we don't have to spend much time with them.

Equally the moral compass of a short story doesn't have to be as fixed as the novel's. Nor is there the sense of the protagonist gathering a series of experiences along their journey, life lessons that build and point in the same direction, towards a cumulative sense of 'truth', the way they often do the classic bildungsroman. As Nadine Gordimer argues, the short story's truth is momentary, discrete and fleeting, and as such the story can occupy a more morally ambiguous (and therefore realistic) universe. Also, the revelation at the heart of a short story is of a more singular nature than any revelations you find in novels, its epiphanies shine into the abrupt darkness at the end of a short story, and linger longer.

But perhaps what's most exciting about short stories are the many types of narrative structures it allows you as a writer and reader. Below we have attempted to group these structures into three types (with some help from Charles E May's Short Story Theories (1977) and New Short Story Theories (1994) and R Page's foreword to Parenthesis (2006)).

The Epical Story

For many short stories, especially realist ones, brevity is 'wired-in' through the withholding of a part of the narrative – a hidden, suspended element – which, when it crashes into view changes everything, seemingly forever. The absence of this missing part is ultimately unsustainable – it's only a matter of time before it drops into view. When it does, this new narrative (despite being inevitable in retrospect) comes as a genuine surprise to the reader. But it's not just a surprise, or a twist, it's much more than that, it re-illuminates everything that's preceded it, casting otherwise unnoticed details in a new light, giving them new life. Chekhov and Joyce famously brought about a revolution in short story writing, a paradigm shift from what we might call 'traditional revelations' (where external conflicts are resolved externally, by external events or discoveries) to 'modernist epiphanies' (in which the revelation/resolution is entirely internal). Both are still types of epical stories.

The texture of the revelation, the way it feels to the reader, differs between these two types. In the traditional epical story, the revelation is finite and closed – guilt is apportioned, an identity is revealed, a secret act is uncovered. In the modernist epical story, the revelation is more open; coming from inside the character, and affecting their (and our) perspective on the world, colouring more than just the events and characters in question, but an indefinite number of things moving forward. In both cases, the epical story is teleological, everything in it revolves around the ending. Good examples of these two types of epical stories are Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' (traditional), and James Joyce's 'Araby' (modernist).

The Lyrical Story

If the epical story has what Eileen Baldeshwiler calls ‘a decisive ending that sometimes affords universal insight,’ the lyrical story, by contrast, ‘relies for the most part on the open ending.’ Instead of focusing on plot, the lyrical story is distinguished by its emphasis on a central, recurring image or symbol, around which the narrative revolves, and from which it acquires open and changing meanings. An obvious example of this open and changing meaning can be found in Mansfield’s short masterpiece, ‘The Fly’. Here, the image of the fly being tortured by the old man (‘the boss’) can be interpreted in various contradictory ways (symbolising the boss’s previous relationship with his son; allowing a form of revenge on the world; demonstrating the boss’s lack of grief; betraying the boss’s repression of grief). By being ‘open’, the symbol doesn’t insist on one reading, or meaning, but allows for many. It remains unexplained, and unresolved. And once established – usually early on in the story – the image, though returned to and re-interpreted several times, remains externally static.

It is worth noting that lyrical short stories also need an external plot (sometimes with an epical shape to it) which runs in tandem with the development of the image. Unlike the purely epical structure, however, the final 'revelation' comes not from some last-minute revision, but from the ultimate irresolvability of the central image. Lyrical stories generally eschew complete closure – the atmosphere is established early, sustained throughout and merely rings louder in its absence after the close.

The lyrical image often plays a secondary role: to act as a stand-in where the protagonist is unable to express themselves. In Mansfield’s ‘The Fly’, the old boss has ‘arranged’ a time in which he can have a cry about his dead son, but then finds he cannot cry. The torture of the fly fills that gap. The pear tree in Mansfield’s story ‘Bliss’; the arranged furniture on the lawn in Carver’s ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’; the helmet of ice in David Constantine’s ‘The Loss’; the un-posted, unwritten letter of Martyn Bedford’s 'Letters Home'. These all represent a desire to say something that the protagonist cannot say, to let tears flow, or joy abound.

Unlike the epical story which revolves around the end, the lyrical story establishes its central image then sustains and mutates it.

The Artifice Story

This third type of short story doesn't derive its power from a 'surprise' revelation, or from the slow development of a central image, but from the unlikely insertion of a seemingly incompatible ingredient right at the start. The surprise comes from the fact that this ingredient is out of place, it belongs to a different reality than the rest of the story, like an asteroid from a different genre, or dimension, it sits at the start of the story, smouldering ominously. The otherwise conventional, realist narrative it crash-lands into then tries to assimilate it, and incorporate it, and its failure to do so is what ultimately gives the story its meaning. The classic artifice story is Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' (1915). Here the opening 'un-reality' plays against the human drama of the story, shining a light onto the emotional/psychological realism of the surrounding story. There is an illogical logic to the choice of this insertion – it must be both completely random and somehow perfect. By introducing something so ‘out of place’ into the story, the author sets in motion two separate, parallel stories that illuminate each other. The absurd storyline of the bug takes on moments of great mundanity, while the realist surrounding storyline is cast in an absurdist light. Other examples of this type of story include Primo Levi's Magic Paint and Adam Marek's 'Testicular Cancer vs The Behemoth' (from Instruction Manual for Swallowing).

NB. Charles E May uses the word ‘artifice’ quite differently, to denote a quality of the folk story, allegory or fairy tale.