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Writing Short Stories

Of all forms of literature, the short story is perhaps the crest jewel of good writing. It is not too long and therefore ends before one’s attention is diverted to something else.

“A good short story is like a woman’s skirt. It should be long enough to conceal the essentials and short enough to draw attention to the details.”
– O Henry

Of all forms of literature, the short story is perhaps the crest jewel of good writing. It is not too long and therefore ends before one’s attention is diverted to something else.
It is also neither too short leaving the reader thirsting for more.

However, as every other form of writing, it should be absorbing, interesting and have an element of mystery in it. T S Elliot once said, “In my end is the beginning.” Herein is concealed a valuable tip for short story writers.

A short story should have a good beginning that not only sets the ground for the drama to unfold, but also has the seed of the final ending that the author has in mind within itself.
Yet surprisingly enough, every good ending that a short story has hangs in mystery. It ends and yet does not end and leads the reader into new avenues of thought and diverse layers of feelings.

As Rabindranath Tagore has so aptly said – a short story doesn’t end even when it ends.

The Beginning
Take care of the beginning and the story will take care of itself is an advice well worth heeding to. For example, O Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi” begins this way. “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all.” The entire story revolves around true love against the dramatic setting of the financial crises of a couple who love each other intensely.

The fact that the lady of the story has only 1 dollar and 87 cents leads her to sell her most possession, her hair, to get enough money in order to buy a strap for the wrist-watch of her husband for Christmas.

It is very clear as the story progresses that she has struggled hard to collect the money and in the end, it is the inability to collect enough money to buy a gift that makes the protogonists of the story to give what they cherish most to procure the gifts each wants to give the other. It is a sacrifice of the highest order; one that communicates true love.

In other words the whole story revolve around the limited funds the couple have. But for this fiscal limitation, the story, “The Gift of the Magi” would not have any justifiable reason to be narrated. That gives us the cue. Note how a master short story writer like O Henry sets the start for a story and thus sets it on course to reach the surprise ending.

The Ending
Consider another one of O Henry’s stories — “The Last Leaf.” It begins with the protagonist of the story counting the falling leaves of an ivory creeper. The falling leaves are a metaphor for the fading signs of hope for the heroine of the story. Because she is a failure as an artist thus far in life, she considers herself a total faliure.

In the end, the stubborn will of a leaf refusing to fall from the creeper makes her gain hope and confidence and she recovers from her terminal illness. The illness, infact is a mask — the real disease is her psychological depression.

She identifies herself with the leaf, each one when it falls snaps something in her. But then comes one leaf that refuses to drop off. That is enough to lift her spirits. The reader is left wondering what falling leaves means to her and how it changes her attitude towards life.

It also provokes us to think. Are we also counting our days like the protagonist in the story or are we steadfastly clinging like the last leaf to the tree of life?

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