The brevity of a short story is both its beauty and its challenge. Beautiful because it allows the reader to experience a story in its entirety and complete it in one go. And challenging because it forces the writer to create something worth experiencing in so few words. While a novel, through sequential pieces of narrative, can create a world, relationships, and experiences that unfold over time – a short story must do this quickly and completely. The danger is that a short story becomes a fragment of a story. Short story writer Graham Mort has said, “What prevents short stories from becoming merely fragmentary – nugatory lumps of prose – is their ability to engage the reader.”
It’s easy to say that short stories must engage the reader, but how is this done? While we can talk about everything from language, form, tense and the like, useful tools as they are, it is really down to using the concision to enrol the imagination of the reader. When every word must count, the short story cannot say it all, and nor should it, the reader needs to be allowed into the world and fill in the blanks a little. A short story then becomes more than part of a longer story. It is a story that involves the reader and need be no longer. Perhaps that is why the opening of a short story is so important in engaging the reader’s imagination and establishing what is to come; take this example from Poe’s classic, A Tell-tale Heart:
“True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”
In these opening lines the tone is set, we learn about the insanity of the storyteller and as a reader we’re already involved, using our imagination, engaged. Or we could take a more recent example; Adam Marek’s touching and chilling short story about a father taking his son out in a storm to hide him from the storm that’s taking place at home:
“It’s so windy today. My son Jakey and I are at the window watching leylandii bow to each other, and the snails being blown across the patio like sailboats.”
In these opening lines we learn of the bond between the parent and the son, but also the sense that something is not right, there is unease, a sense that something is to come; and there we are imagining again. This isn’t to say openings aren’t important in novels – they are. But these openings highlight the significance of engaging the readers in a short story from the get go, by affording them the opportunity to imagine. When this challenge is overcome throughout the entirety of a short story, it can be both beautiful and brief.