Short Fiction Appreciation by Samantha E. Williams

by on Nov 8, 2015 in Blog | 1 comment

In our culture of “more is more,” short stories are, unfortunately, often overlooked as a reading medium. Series following the same characters get longer, and longer … and longer–both in novel form and on TV. The trend is disheartening, particularly when one considers the breadth and beauty of the short story.

I got through high school without reading a single, self-chosen short story, as I am sure most people in the United States do, too. When I got to college, though, short stories became almost the norm for literature course assignments. At first, I scoffed at them–after all, I thought, like many people do, that a short story isn’t worth the time. Give me a novel, instead, I thought!

But, then I took a Science Fiction and Fantasy course, coupled with a creative writing course which featured, at its core, the art of writing a short story. It was the SciFi/Fantasy course that ultimately ignited in me an interest in science fiction (I took the course to read fantasy, my favorite, at the time).

As it turns out, the course professor liked science fiction more than fantasy, so much of the course focused on SciFi shorts rather than Fantasy shorts. One of the short stories we read is a veritable pillar of science fiction: “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov.

If you haven’t read it, you should. If you have, and you didn’t like it, you can at least give it the compliment of being a well-built short story.

“Nightfall” exemplifies the greatness of short stories as a form, and here is why:

  • In Medias Res – For writers and readers alike, the term in medias res has likely crossed our field of thought at least once. Drop anyone into the middle of the action and the chances of them being hooked to a particular plot is higher than if you, say, spend twenty chapters on exposition explaining how things came about before the particular moment the story “begins.” Asimov drops readers into the middle of the action–readers understand something big is happening, and the plot quickly thickens.
  • Explanation Only When Essential – Exposition, description, and other explanatory prose tends to slow down the action. Asimov keeps the short story moving by slowly providing pieces of the plot puzzle to readers throughout. At the beginning, all readers, and Theremon, understand is that a single sun, out of the 6 that grace Lagash’s skies, remains visible. Later, bits and pieces of the “Book of Revelations,” the calculations and projections of the scientists, and the full scale of what is happening are revealed.
  • Nothing More Needs to Be Explained – Short stories are great in that the author, typically, is not setting up for the next novel or the next potential novel or the possibly-rumored-follow up novel. A short story is what it is–a concise, invigorating plot that ends…truly ends. In our culture of “more is more,” maybe this feature doesn’t sound appealing, but it is so much more than it sounds. Imagine being touched by something immediately–a well-written short story will tug at your heartstrings, or make you think deeply about something, or even leave you speechless. And guess what? It does that in less time than a novel or series typically does.
  • Perfectly Packaged – I could go on and on about what makes “Nightfall” well-structured, but let me sum it up like this: the beauty of a short story is the succinctity of its story arc. It is brief, but meaty. It is vague, but insightful. Do we need to know about the full history of Lagash and its suns? No. Do we need to know the histories of the characters involved? No. The story captivates by placing us in medias res, it keeps us by feeding small details when essential, and it wraps up with a satisfyingly logical ending that leaves us hanging.

It takes a great writer to write a compelling short story. Hell, take “Nightfall” as an example. Asimov is one of our SciFi “fathers.” And guess what? He tried to write “Nightfall” as a novel later, and it did not do nearly as well as the short story. Probably because nothing more needed to be explained. Darkness and the stars have had such an impact on the human race, and Asimov played to the human condition, which is what hooked me, and many others, I am sure.

I leave you with what Asimov began with for “Nightfall,” a quote from Emerson that exemplifies the events about to be parsed out by one of the greats in a great literary medium:

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!”

Samantha E. Williams is a submissions editor for Apex Magazine.

Check out the Apex Magazine 2015 subscription drive going on through November 13th.

1 Comment

  1. Fantastic article. Conveniently concise ideas about short stories.

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