I love short stories, both reading them and writing them. My recent excursion on SF Signal’s Mind Meld, in which I joined a number of others in listing stories for a perfect anthology, got me to thinking about why I like them so much.
I came to this conclusion: The wonderful thing about great short stories is that they leave room for the reader’s imagination.
The key skill in writing short fiction is to give the readers everything they need to know, but nothing more. The shorter the story, the more careful you must be to make sure that every word in the story conveys information. And you don’t need to repeat yourself: in a story that can be read in one sitting, you don’t have to remind the reader of details mentioned earlier.
The trick is figuring out what to leave out, because that’s the stuff the readers will imagine for themselves.
And as a reader, that’s really part of the fun, filling out the rest of life in that world from the sparse details supplied in the story. Or spending hours thinking about the underlying ideas.
That may be why science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories work so well, since they engage the imagination so completely. I’ve never liked short mystery stories all that much, perhaps because mysteries really need a lot of detail if the writer is playing fair about giving the clues, and perhaps because I really read mysteries for the setting and character development, and you need a lot of room to do that. But with a science fiction story, a few details are enough to send my imagination soaring or to get me thinking about a larger idea.
Reading over the lists at the Mind Meld (Part I and Part II), you see some patterns. Many writers show up on more than one list — Le Guin, Delany — but not necessarily with the same stories. Many of the contributors are fond of one or two writers who are not widely known. Most contributors found it important to list at least a few classics of the genre — I included Poe and so did others, Lovecraft makes several appearances, and a lot of people included Bradbury, to name a few. But then Karen Burnham limited herself to post-2000 stories, which makes a fascinating list as well. And Nancy Kress created the anthology she’d like to use as a teacher.
Already I’m kicking myself for leaving off William Gibson’s “Johnny Mnenomic” and Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Fluted Girl,” both of which are etched in my memory. And I really wanted to include something by Bruce Holland Rogers, because I know some of his emailed flash fictions have moved me to tears, but I found it hard to come up with an individual story, perhaps because I read them while reading my email. (Sobering thought about modern pubishing.)
It seems to me that in the modern world of supposedly short attention spans, short fiction should be making a comeback. Sure, I love immersing myself in a great rambling novel as much as anyone else, but you can read a whole short story during your daily subway commute (not while driving, please!) or over your lunch. And then you can think about it in odd moments the rest of the day.
I’m still thinking about the worlds and ideas in all the stories I listed. That’s why they made my list.
My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are available on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s. The free, chapter-by-chapter version of Changeling starts here. And check out my stories in the Book View Cafe anthologies The Shadow Conspiracy, Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, and Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.