By: Julie Nichols
We tell stories every day of our lives. “What did you do last week?” “What happened with your cousin and that girlfriend of his?” “How did your mom break her leg?” –the answers to these, and a million similar questions that make up our everyday conversations, are stories, narratives with a beginning, middle, and end. Usually there’s some kind of static situation at the beginning; then complications happen, with unexpected turns for the better or worse, so that things as they were at the beginning more or less fall apart. But then, because of someone’s ingenuity or good (or bad) luck, everything refashions itself into a brand new state of being, one we might never have imagined. Often it’s in some way the reverse of the state of things at the beginning.
The principal difference between our chatty, enthusiastic narratives in response to everyday questions and a fine written short story lies in the shaping.
Short stories, or fictional prose, can vary in length from the six-word short story (Hemingway’s famous “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” tells a complete and poignant tale) to upwards of 20,000 words. Many literary magazines ask for somewhere between three and five thousand words. So part of the joy and challenge of writing a fine short story is knowing what to leave out without leaving out too much. If “show, don’t tell” and “provide sensory detail” are fundamental tenets of good short story writing, “select, select, select” is their emphatic caveat.