“It is the tale, not he who tells it.” – Stephen King
Several years ago, I set myself to write a new story each week. The pandemic came along, which was a spanner in the works, but I have often, if not always, made that goal. There have been weeks – more than one – in which I have written as many as three new stories. Last week I wrote two new ones with a combined word count of three thousand.
Short Story Length From Flash to Novel
I left the definition of a story intentionally vague. I have written tales as short as 400 words and as long as 7,600. These are wide brackets. I generally consider a story to be 1,000 words or more, a length commonly known as the usual upper limit for “flash fiction”. Three thousand words is moderate, and not until 6,000 words do I consider a story long. For comparison, I recently reread “Salvatore” by Somerset Maugham. I remembered this as quite a short story, but it is over 1,800 words, easily a magazine feature length.
I principally write stories and, indeed, short stories. A novel is considered to be 90,000 words. Therefore my longest story so far, 7,400 words, is less than 10% of a novel and would be more accurately considered a novella – but why complicate matters? Still, for the sake of detail and completeness, there is value in hierarchically defining these terms: flash fiction, short story, story, novella, novelette, and novel.
In terms of length, a short story is, therefore, Mama Bear in the Goldilocks yarn: not too short and not too long. Somewhere between one and two thousand words is a good afternoon’s work. Anthony Burgess, the author of “Clockwork Orange”, among other works, stated that he wrote one thousand words each day. If he completed that in two hours – however unlikely – he was done for the day. Equally, if it took him all day, so be it – but one thousand words was the minimum.
The Seven Different Story Themes
So what exactly is a story? The idea of fiction seems key. By shaping all of reality and bending character, circumstance, plot, and mood, the author has maximum freedom in shaping the desired message. Often stories have a moral message, either affirming a particular ethical code or holding a character in breach of such a code up as an example. There are often subtexts to a surface text, and especially with the rise of the Internet, there are now recognized tropes. One such example of a trope is the science fiction idea that the cities of the future are often crystalline spires reaching high into the sky.
Suppose a fictive element is the central key to a story. In that case, non-fiction writing falls under different banners: essays, investigative reporting, critical analysis, etc. But a story, or more appropriately a fiction story, is a tale that is not true but that easily could be.
Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch was a prolific English writer and novelist who usually published under the pseudonym Q. He is today remembered mainly for the monolithic publication of The Oxford Book Of English Verse 1250–1900 and for literary criticism. Sir Quiller-Crouch was a product of his times and today would be considered sexist. Nevertheless, he identifies seven basic themes claimed to embody all stories: Man against man; Man against nature; Man against himself; Man against God; Man against society; Man caught in the middle; Man and woman.
A moment’s abstraction shows that the essential characteristic is conflict, a protagonist in opposition to another force. The original list becomes suspect. The fundamental feature is oppositional. This, however, does not imply an inevitable struggle. The conflict is merely the vehicle for change from beginning to end. Thus the simplest form of a story is change – something happens.
A story is a transformation. This change may be an improvement. It could be a lesson learned, an insight gained, or a moral principle demonstrated. But equally, it could be the opposite of all of these, a previous lesson now ignored or a moral principle now deprecated. Change may also be a decline, for example, a loss of innocence, a standard in all stories from Genesis to Lord of the Flies.
These seven frameworks, or the even greater abstraction of a single framework of change in a story, is simply a way of looking at the text. This is only a categorization method – a tool of analysis. The fact that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet still leaves ample space for West Side Story, despite the plot similarity. Blade Runner could be construed simply as Frankenstein or vice-versa, yet both offer meaningful contributions and insights.
This raises yet another point. A story may serve as social criticism through allegory. Playwright Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a criticism of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. In this way, a subject which is too socially or politically explosive to be directly addressed can be analyzed by analogy.
So a story, and a short story, are about change. Something happens, something occurs so that the end is different and distinct from the beginning. More than any other quality, that is the purity test of fiction. It can be transcendence, transformation or deterioration, but there is some protean component. In more poetic terms, each and every story is about a protagonist becoming their realer self, for better or for worse.
Ideas and Inspiration for a Short Story
Inspiration for a story can be a single image. I once imagined a man searching snowy mountains. After total failure and approaching death, I finally saw a lone light far down a valley still high in the mountains. This became a story about a man in a primitive world whose daughter died of a plague. He began searching the hills for the witch who had the ability to resurrect his daughter. The larger story became an allegorical commentary on the human experimentation performed at both Tuskegee and Dachau – the plague had been engineered and tested on the primitives.
My personal readings about utility fog – a hypothetical Nano machine that could freely float in the air led to my imagining of what I called the “cloud chamber”, a room with an atmosphere so thick in such tiny machines that it becomes functionally equivalent to the holodecks of Star Trek. While the magical rooms of Star Trek are unexplained, the cloud chamber provides a mechanistic pathway that such could be feasible – not actually real, but it could be.
In such a room, elements could form images and surfaces by clumping and even solid structures. Against this backdrop, my protagonist had herself covered in such a way that her body shape changed, and she became a Godzilla-like creature. Presenting other elements, such as houses at a reduced scale, created the illusion of greater size for the protagonist. She then proceeded to destroy a small town, using her superior size and ability to breathe fire. At the end of the story, she regretted her actions and the town was restored – before being poofed out of existence a moment later. It was an incredibly fun story to write. Even more so, it was a fresh and novel way to write a “Godzilla” story.
Yet another single image yielded a Groundhog Day story. What if everything proceeded normally, except that time stopped advancing? No matter how much time passes, the clock remains forever frozen on the same number. Thus I have a protagonist trapped forever in the same minute, which is a Groundhog Day theme while still being original and fresh.
The Revenge of Nemesis Story
One personal category of story I have explored is the “revenge” story but I have recently upgraded to a Nemesis classification. Nemesis was the Greek Goddess of retributive justice. She can be metaphorically released in her imagination and on the printed page to ensure equity. These finished stories are inspired by petty evildoers or, if that is troubling, those who irritate. In the story, anything is wonderfully possible. Any degree of retributive justice is fair game, nothing is too much and thus Nemesis holds sway.
Such stories are also great fun to write. In one story, the villain died in the first paragraph and spent the next 2,700 words and three billion years in the afterlife limping from one bureaucratic office to another, trying to get his paperwork completed. In death, as in life, he gave no thought to others. But in death, he was alone, the sole victim of his own selfishness.
Surprisingly, these stories write themselves. They are emotionally satisfying and, therefore, better than therapy. Because the story usually consists of slightly enhancing an unpleasant feature of the initial human Inspiration, be it laziness, selfishness, or combativeness, the descriptive words flow easily. These stories also tend to be longer, more detailed, and with a clear and precise resolution condemnatory of poor behavior.
I maintain a file of story ideas. These ideas all seem to involve longer tales. One of them, currently summarized as “Brave Geraldo”, is a satire of talk shows. In this story, as yet unwritten, a serial killer targets talk show hosts. Through a series of complex machinations, one brave man, a talk show host above all others, disregarding the danger, interviews the killer live on television. I expect the finished story will be extremely satirical. This idea first came to me in 1996 at a time when talk shows were more common; one day, I will write it.
Stories as Part of a Series
Many stories reuse characters and scenarios. Thus I have a series of stories about a woman stranded on a remote station 12,000 light years from Earth. With little hope of rescue, this frame provides a base for various stories. In one story, she suffers an aneurysm, and the monitoring computer performs brain surgery. This story ends with her realization that she probably survived only because she was stranded. Another story is the Godzilla story discussed earlier. Yet another is about her remote celebration of Christmas. Each story is standalone, yet akin to a book chapter. And ultimately, she does find a way home.
Using and reusing a frame allows rapid writing of familiar thematic stories. This is what Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes and what many other writers, e. g. J. K. Rowling, have done in creating popular series. It saves time and effort for the writer and allows new stories within an already known fictional world.
Experimenting With Genre
Writing, like strength, is increased and improved by exercise. I normally write science fiction – which is an incredibly broad genre. But I have also experimented with other story types. I have written two mysteries, one more explicitly involving a crime than the other. I have written one fantasy, which I consider successful, but that experience was less interesting to me.
One area I have especially been exploring is the fictional town of Edgewood, in which strange and magical things occur, which the residents all regard as normal. These are all arguably horror stories, and yet they admit to a great deal of humor. They are wonderfully fun to write, and the particular details address another recurrent problem of horror: why are there so many different monsters all the time? Because it’s Edgewood, and in Edgewood, monsters are normal, and no one notices.
And so it is that in a short time, I have written stories about a vampire, a lake monster, a troll, a possible ghost, a mermaid, a dancing skeleton, and the three fates of Greek mythology. Such diversity and variety are to be expected in Edgewood.
This blog post has attempted to address the everyday concerns of writing stories – not writing one story, but rather the ongoing process of writing. A blank page can be incredibly daunting, to the point of intimidation. But it can also be incredibly liberating. You, as the writer, decide all that happens. The success or failure of your art exists only in your own assessment and is determined by your own skill, which is hard-won by effort. So… ready, set, go, start writing!