I don’t remember when I fell in love with short stories. Must have been early, in junior high or high school. As a mystery fan, I know mysteries have a long, proud short story tradition–the first mysteries were short stories written by Edgar Allan Poe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels featuring Sherlock Holmes but fifty-six short stories. I discovered Ray Bradbury short stories at my first library job. After so many years of reading this literary form, I can give you four reasons why I love short stories.
I read for pleasure at night to help me get sleepy. Short stories allow me to enjoy a complete story in one or two sitting. Since I’ve had kids, I find it much more difficult to finish a novel. If I really like it, I have to sneak in reading time at other points during the day besides bedtime, and ultimately, I grow frustrated.
Sampling New Authors and Genres
When I long for something new to read, I pick up anthologies. I can sample a variety of authors in a short amount of time. If I like a particular author’s story, I’ll seek out his other works, including novels. If I need a break from mysteries, I’m more willing to try a different genre in short story form because it’s less of a commitment. I enjoy reading fantasy and sci-fi in short stories because I don’t enjoy novel with world-building so complicated I need to take notes. Short stories allow me to dip into a fantasy world without drowning in details.
I find it easier to get lost in a short story than a novel. Maybe it’s because a short story often takes place in one setting and is told from one point of view. Novels can achieve this too. One of the reason that Watership Down is a favorite novel of mine is because author Richard Adams does such a marvelous job of making the English countryside come alive. But I think it’s harder to do this in novels because they have more plot to keep moving. The short length of short stories actually works in their favor by forcing writers to zero in on settings and characters and to make every word work double, triple, or quadruple duty.
If there’s one literary technique short stories do better than novels, it’s the twist ending. Again, I think it has to do with the length. On April Fool’s Day, a person doesn’t mind being tricked for a few minutes. But if the joker keeps it up until the end of the day, the victim will feel stupid and conned. Finding a twist ending at the end of a short story seems appropriate after I invest only an hour to it. But if I spend days with a novel, only to have all my conceptions upended, I’ll most likely feel cheated.
Novels can do the twist ending well. Agatha Christie pulled it off in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I just think it’s much harder to keep the truth hidden from readers for hundreds of pages instead of fifty and not have them feel like they’ve been scammed.
Which do you prefer—short stories or novels and why?