Maybe I am very impatient, or maybe I have a short attention span. Whatever the reason, I find myself reading more and more short stories. Good short stories remind you of just how much filler there is in many novels. Although a good novel will layer several related plots upon one another, a ‘story’ only really needs one strong event.
Although prose based on real life events can be very interesting, I don’t think it necessarily constitutes a story. I enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, but there is no plot as such. He simply describes his day to day life during a period when he was a drifter. I think a ‘story’ needs a magical structural element, which tells us something about the fundamental nature of life. Similarly, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, is very beautiful and tragic, but it does not really explain anything to us. It gives us some insight into the very personal thoughts of an unhappy young man, but because the story is autobiographical, the writer cannot see the bigger picture and comment on the nature of un-requited love and misery. Robert McKee in his book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting asserts that story is about someone or something effecting a change. Werther could have undertaken some task to win his true love, or broken away from his unhealthy obsession with another man’s fiancée. His predicament is similar to that of Captain Dobbin’s in Vanity Fair, but Dobbin makes the brave move of walking away from Amelia, the woman who has childishly strung him along for years. This is the catalyst for her realising that she wants him, which, combined with her realisation that her dead husband (who she is still faithful to) was a cad, moves the story forward.
Perhaps in real life we do not see the layer of irony and meaning on top of our lives. Maybe good stories are supposed to reveal this to us. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray very effectively uses the plot of the story to comment on morality. The book is a catalogue of scandals in Victorian London, which could just be dinner party gossip, but in the final act when the painting is unmasked, showing all the marks on Dorian’s soul, the story comes to life. Dorian is finally confronted with his own evil. This metaphysical layer on top of the realism is what makes the story so profound.
I especially loved this comic about plot – Third Act Twists. It’s an interesting reference if you do any fiction writing.
This is one of my favourite short stories – Momentum by Damien G. Walter. It has an amazing story, and is eerie like Lovecraft but warmer.