The Art of the Short Story
I’ve been reading a compilation of Fritz Leiber short stories for the last few weeks, savoring them at a rate of one over a day or two. I thoroughly enjoy his work and style. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are two absolutely iconic and genre-shaping characters – as much the root of DnD and the current fantasy tropes as Lord of the Rings – and I don’t think Leiber gets enough credit for that.
What is incredibly interesting to me about those characters is the fact that their stories were told not in novels and sprawling epics, but rather in short story form. Their backstories and adventures were parcelled out in pieces, completely appropriately, like hearing the tales spun by an itinerant bard in some smoky tavern. It makes for an interesting – to me anyway – juxtaposition to the traditional Heroic Arc type of story: powerless or weak or young character goes on Epic Quest to return as Hero (which interestingly does not happen in The Lord of the Rings – Frodo may return as the proclaimed hero, but he is a broken shell made empty by his quest, drained by the burden that he actually failed to destroy at the end). The vignettes of the burly barbarian and slight but nimble city-dweller are perfect for keeping them as vibrant characters.
Reading Leiber has made me think about the art of short story writing. He is a freaking master of it. Take a character, sketch enough details to make him memorable, then place them in a situation that is remarkable. It isn’t easy to do, as far as I’m concerned. I always thought that writing short stories would be very similar to writing a novel, only shorter and quicker. Having actually written a novel, I realize now that it’s as different a process as writing poetry. The two skills are completely different.
I have no earthly idea if I can write a decent short story. I did, once, for a creative writing class, but it was freaking hard for me. I think it’s because I take too goddamn long to get to the point. I mean, uh, I prefer to languidly let the tale unfold, like unto a flower opening petal by petal to reveal the beauty therein, at a pace that allows the reader to savor the anticipation of what is to come. That’s totally what I meant.
A great short story needs to take its premise, it’s STORY, and punch the reader in the mouth with it. To me, a novel is about the characters, and the story is the thing that the characters interact with. In a short story, the Story is the star, and the characters are just around for the story to do something to. As an example, one of Leiber’s stories, one of my favorites, is about a guy literally playing dice against Death (“Gonna Roll the Bones”). You can’t fit that in a novel. It wouldn’t go in. The Story is bigger than the characters could ever be. The brief snatches of background about the protagonist are just enough to make you care about him, and that’s all a short story requires, that hook of Caring. Once you’ve got that, then the payoff of the Story matters. A lot of times, the character dies, or gets close to it. The short story lets the writer create a character, make you like them, then kill them off in front of you, and they don’t have to worry about it. You, the reader, have to deal with it. It’s powerful.
I’ve always felt that Stephen King was a much better short story writer than novelist. Don’t get me wrong, I love It, and The Stand, and a bunch of his other stuff, but for me they will always pale compared to his shorter stuff. I think it’s because for King, The Story is the thing, the main event. It’s almost a cliché that his novels always end badly and awkwardly; almost a cliché, because it’s true. Imagine It, not as a novel, but as a separated group of short stories about all the different deaths in Derry. He’d never have had to go through the ridiculous “final” battle and the incredibly disturbing pre-teen orgy scene – man, that’s a weird fucking way to make sure people keep their promise – or explaining away the Clown. The Clown would just be free to fuck with your mind, for all time, because there would be no ending. The short story is the tale that It and The Stand deserve – which is odd for 1,000+ page novels. Today, when I want to read Stephen King, I grab Different Seasons or Skeleton Crew or Night Shift or one of his other short story compilations. He was born to the form.
Sadly, the form doesn’t pay well.
And that is the reason why I think Leiber and others like him – Harlan Ellison and others – don’t ascend to the sales figures that they deserve. Novels sell. Short stories don’t. Dreck can be sold by the dumptruck-full as long as it’s 300 pages long. But a perfect story, crafted in a mere 15 pages that makes the reader think for a month afterwards? How can you package that? With the slow agonizing death of the magazine, there is no real place for a great story to be showcased to a mass audience. And that’s a shame, because Fritz Leiber was an incredible writer, a master, and it’s so rare to see or hear of anyone actually reading him.