The Short Story Versus the Novel
In their own ways, both short stories and novels help people to understand themselves and the universe, but they do so in markedly different ways. Of course, the most obvious difference is length, but this is not the only important distinction. Whereas a novel might center on one central story and several side stories that can span an extended period of time, generally the action in a short story revolves around just one incident that happens during a brief period of time. In “The Second Tree from the Corner,” most of the story unfolds while the main character, Trexler, talks with his doctor during an office visit. The remainder of the story is told to readers by briefly touching on several of Trexler's later visits to the doctor, with the wonderfully satisfying conclusion coming just five weeks after the story began.
Another difference between the short story and the novel is the number of characters. Typically, a short story will focus on only one or a few characters, whereas a novel may give us half a dozen or more. In “The Second Tree from the Corner,” only Trexler and his doctor inhabit the pages. In Isaac Bashevis Singer's “The Key,” readers follow the harrowing day of an elderly woman named Bessie, hearing only a few words from a neighbor and an apartment superintendent and feeling the hovering presence of Bessie's dead husband Sam.
Good fiction that contains no dialogue, only pure narration, does exist, but well-written, realistic dialogue can be a great addition to the telling of any story. After all, dialogue is conversation, and what better way to tell a story than by having the characters speak the words? If a plot is peopled with interesting, appealing characters, it is very likely that readers will want to know what they have to say. (Dialogue is particularly important to movie and play scripts; for more on writing for the movies, see Chapter 6.)
Dialogue serves two purposes in a short story (and in other fiction formats as well) — to deepen our understanding of the characters and their personalities and to further develop the plot. Through dialogue readers add another important layer to their picture of the author's fictional creations, get a clearer idea of the plot as characters talk about incidents or conflicts and say how they feel about them, and are better able to differentiate among these characters. Dialogue also works to liven up any scene and gives it a greater sense of reality.
When characters speak, they give us an indirect line into their minds and their makeup. In fact, author Rita Mae Brown calls fictional speech a “literary biopsy.” It shows if characters are argumentative or easygoing, if they're happy or sad, what they like and don't like, their goals and dreams, how educated they are, where they come from, whether they're eccentric or down-home, their fears, and their past. Everything about characters can be revealed in their speech.
You can also use dialogue to illustrate the relationships between characters and show how those relationships change in moments of conflict or enlightenment, and to reveal crucial information about plots or other characters.
A related literary device is the monologue — when a character talks to him- or herself. Interior monologues and dialogues can point out a character's uncertainty, inner turmoil, feelings of self-worth or self-loathing, excitement, and anger — the full range of emotions and thoughts.
Viewpoint is another area in which short stories and longer fiction often differ. While a novel may have several viewpoints — in Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, both of the lead characters tell us their take on the fascinating story of how they met, separated, and eventually reconnected — the short story generally doesn't have the luxury of space in which to do this. Varying viewpoints can also disrupt the strong, immediate identification that readers need to feel with short-story characters.
Still another aspect of the short story that is crucial is pacing. Because there are fewer sentences than in a novella or novel, each must move the story forward in some way. If you take pages to describe the main character and set the scene for what will unfold, time will run out before you get to the main elements, and the reader will become impatient to discover how the issues will be resolved. Short-story writers need to jump right into their subject and keep right on going.
Which Brings You to the End
The best short story endings resolve the conflicts that have been ongoing in a way that shows how the characters, or the situation, have changed. Effective endings satisfy readers and often surprise them. “A Jury of Her Peers,” first written by Susan Glaspell in 1916 as a one-act play and then later rewritten by her into short-story format, is about two Midwestern women portrayed as “dutiful wives” to their law-enforcement husbands' way of thinking. In the course of the story, these women learn about a wife accused of murdering her husband. Though they know her only slightly, they come to understand her completely through the state of her home and the evidence only they see there. In the end, they do an extraordinary thing — something they know to be wrong but in the situation completely right. The ending makes you catch your breath and smile at the same time.