Going Long: Writing the Long Short Story

The art of the short story resides in the heft of details, characters and scenes that must necessarily remain hidden from view, trapped beneath a surface comprised of approximately five thousand words. Let’s say you write a short story in which the protagonist, a woman, drives down a narrow country road that cuts through a fictional town in Connecticut. She is on her way to visit her father, who still lives in the house where she grew up. The woman is fleeing her past, one that includes a recent ex-husband. In the back seat of the car is their three-year-old son.

What the protagonist sees, thinks, and feels is carefully chosen and controlled, and the life of the woman—her inner life, the revealed aspects of the world around her—feels complete. And yet, you, the writer, almost always know more:

You know where the protagonist went to high school, and who her friends were. You know she never tried out for cheerleader. You are aware of her reoccurring nightmare about fire. You know, too, that the road she drives down was once a cart path formed by a farmer named Ebenezer Pinney. His farm consists now of a few spindly apple trees on a hill, cedar posts and rusted wire, a wagon half-buried in the soil, nearly obscured by new growth woods. You know which sibling the protagonist loved more than the others, which childhood memory still resonates. You know that if the protagonist keeps driving she will encounter her old high school boyfriend’s curving driveway, and have the opportunity to pass it by, or not. Of all the acquired skills the short story writer must master, the art of what to leave out is the most vital.

Unless you decide to go long.

The long short story lessens the need to practice the precise skills of choosing significant detail and streamlining the plot. Five thousand words can bloom into eight, ten, even twenty thousand words. The long story can relay that long ago dream of fire. In it the protagonist can pull into the old boyfriend’s driveway, drive up to the house, and discover its charred remains. In the long short story you might encounter a passage about the workings of the combustion engine or the history of Benedict Arnold’s march through Maine. In other words, the long short story can digress, and in this way fill in some of the outlines sketched by its shorter counterpart. However, the need for restraint is never absent. The diversions and details must always work together to reveal the single moment upon which both the long and short story depend. The reader simply reaches this moment with a fuller sense of what comprised the push toward it—those events and aspects of the protagonist’s life, or the setting’s history, that work within the story to propel the character toward discovery or change.

Time becomes, in the long short story, an expanding and contracting presence. One of Nobel Laureate Alice Munro’s gifts to the long short story is her use of time. The reader feels lifetimes are relayed—usually a sweeping sense of years having passed, years from which one important memory or detail is siphoned. In your short story you may decide to move forward in time, to meet your character years after she’s visited the boyfriend’s burned house. Now her son is twelve, or thirteen. Or he is twenty, in college, and your protagonist has had years to fill with life’s events and disappointments. Maybe there’s a new condominium development on the land where the boyfriend’s house once stood, a fancy gated entrance she cannot breach. Does she leave her car by the road, travel the length of the stone wall to find a place to slip through? What has she left there that she must see again? And if she must see it, what will it mean to her story? Will it trigger a previously unmentioned act from the past? What of herself did she leave behind?

The long short story allows your research on old Connecticut resorts that flourished in the 1940s, and died out in the 70s. Your discovery of a place where vacationers used to swim in a concrete pool filled with spring water, where a previous owner was thought to have hung himself in the woods. A place where a clown and a rag tag Rise and Shine band of kids with drums and cymbals and kazoos traveled the paths between cabins, barged into unlocked motel rooms every morning at six a.m. A clown who could undo a woman’s bra through her shirt as quickly as he could place a hand inconspicuously on her back. In the old photos a long red Cadillac convertible is parked in front of a low white-washed strip of motel rooms, a pool and chaise lounges filled with sunbathers. There’s a wide lawn that sweeps down to a river. The woods hold paths and cabins, an activity room where the teenage snack shop workers play pool and drink Rolling Rocks. And there are the images of the place today—the pool empty, the grass grown through the concrete deck, the abandoned office with the weekly activity schedule still posted on a bulletin board, the cabins falling to ruin, the encroaching woods. As the writer, you trust that this information will be useful to your story—that this history of this place and its erasure will mean something to your protagonist.

The long short story makes room for your obsessions and your strange acquired knowledge. When you allow yourself to travel distance and time characters are free to do things they might not have a chance to do in the traditional short story—to climb a stone wall onto the grounds of what was once a high school boyfriend’s home, to walk beyond that place into the woods and discover the ruins of an old resort swimming pool. Going long means an exploration into what might otherwise have been left out, and in this act of inclusion, like opening a hidden door, the story fills up with ghosts, mechanical details, history and its errors of judgment, simple memories that trigger complex emotions for your character and ultimately, for the reader.