What's the point of short stories?

I’ve been having a few discussions with readers and writers lately about the pros and cons of short stories so I thought I share some of these views…

Short stories have been around since the days of Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka and Ernest Hemmingway, and of course Edgar Allen Poe. In my opinion, Stephen King is the modern-day master of the short horror story, and writers such as Ali Smith are more well known for their short stories than anything else.

But some readers I’ve talked to don’t ‘get’ short stories. They don’t like the way that the narrative quite often forms part of a single scene and often has a slightly ambiguous ending, leaving the reader to use their imagination to work out what it was all about. I wrote what I thought was quite a satisfying short ghost story until a reader commented: ‘Where’s Part 2?’ It got me thinking – I was pretty sure the story worked as it was, but I could also see the readers point that they wanted a more concrete resolution (if you’re interested, you can read that story here.

And what about flash fiction? The even shorter form of story (of which there are various definitions of length) that is currently very fashionable on the internet. A brief search will yield hundreds of weekly competitions for 100-200 word stories (see BWP, for one), while websites such as Nano Fiction and Fractured West are actively seeking submissions of stories of around 400 words for their regular print anthologies.

Who is reading this stuff? Well, lots of people, I think. Everything is fast now and people want instant hits from everything in their lives, so short fiction delivered onto their electronic reader*, or mobile phone, provides that quick glimpse of another world while standing at a rainy bus stop or waiting for a delayed train.

*Notice I say ‘they’ when I talk about eReaders… I don’t have one and I don’t want one. I read some short stories, excerpts of stuff and the odd chapter online, but I’d never use one to read a novel, but that’s another post all together…

So who is writing this stuff? Again, lots of people. For most new writers (not all, some of the crazy ones take the instant plunge into novel-land), the short story is a way to learn the skills of writing: character, plot, conflict, grammar, structure and the classic ‘fledgling’ error, where to put the comma when writing dialogue. For some writers, this is merely a stepping stone to writing something bigger, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for others (me included), there is a huge buzz in entering the many writing competitions out there (a quick search will yield hundreds of them, all levels, all genres, there is definitely a place for everyone to submit things to), and getting any sort of mention or accolade is like winning the lottery each and every time. For me, every story I write uses something I’ve learned from the previous one, and far from being a stepping stone, short stories seem to be the backbone of what I do.

Saying that though, I would love to finish a novel – and I hope to finish the one I am working on some time this year. But I will never stop reading and writing short stories. Not even if I win the lottery.