The previous article discusses that a short story is a type of fiction. Therefore it shares the features of fictional works with novelette and novel. A short story is different from a novelette and novel in terms of length. Short stories are commonly 500 to 7,500 words. A novelette is between 7,500 to 17,000 words and novels are more than 17,000 words. But what makes short stories fiction?
This article discusses the six special features of fiction suggested by Alternbend and Lewis (1966) and shows how they are contained in short stories. The six features of fiction include: fiction is dramatic, concrete and specific, generally representative, instructs and entertains, is related to life, and creative and imaginative. To illustrate how these features pertain to short stories, three flash (very brief) stories are used as samples.
Short stories are dramatic.
Read the following very short story.
The Blind Girl
There was a blind girl who hated herself purely for the fact she was blind. The only person she didn’t hate was her loving boyfriend, as he was always there for her. She said that if she could only see the world, she would marry him.
One day, someone donated a pair of eyes to her – now she could see everything, including her boyfriend.
Her boyfriend asked her, “now that you can see the world, will you marry me?”
The girl was shocked when she saw that her boyfriend was blind too, and refused to marry him. Her boyfriend walked away in tears, and later wrote a letter to her saying: “Just take care of my eyes dear.” ***
First of all, The Blind Girl is a story. It tells how the two characters, the girl and her boyfriend, perform some actions. The author never tells us what the story means. Unlike the expository s (essays or scientific articles) which explicitly state their meaning, the meaning of a short story is implicitly presented through the actions and dialogues. In this sense, the meaning of a short story is dramatized, acted out, or expressed through actions.
Since the meaning is dramatized (expressed through the actions), we, the reader, must find it out by interpreting the actions performed by the characters. To a certain extent, the interpretation we make to discover the meaning of a story is very similar to the way we discover the meaning of life, i.e., we observe situations or events, reflect upon them, and draw conclusions that constitute our wisdom about life, whose accuracy depends on our experience and intelligence.
By reflecting the actions and dialogues of the characters in The Blind Girl, we probably discover that the author means to present the idea of 'a peanut forgetting its shell'. Through what she does or says, we realize how the girl in the story soon ignores her past blindness after she is donated a pair of eyes and can see. Her open eyes turn her into a snob and arrogant person. She ignores her boyfriend's kindness and her intention to marry him if she can see the world. The worst effect of her being a peanut forgetting itself is her failure to inquire who has donated the eyes and since when her boyfriend is blind. To conclude, the meaning of the story is acted out.
Short stories are concrete and specific
Before discussing the second feature, read the following fable.
The Lion and the Mouse
Once when a Lion was asleep a little Mouse began running up and down upon him. This soon wakened the Lion, who placed his huge paw upon him, and opened his big jaws to swallow him.
"Pardon, O King," cried the little Mouse: "forgive me this time, I shall never forget it: who knows but what I may be able to do you a turn some of these days?"
The Lion was so tickled at the idea of the mouse being able to help him that he lifted up his paw and let him go.
Sometime after the lion was caught in a trap, and the hunters who desired to carry him alive to the King, tied him to a tree while they went in search of a wagon to carry him on. Just then the little Mouse happened to pass by, and seeing the sad plight in which the lion was, went up to him and soon gnawed away the ropes that bound the King of the Beasts.
“Was I not right?” said the little Mouse. ***
By reflecting the lion and the mouse's actions and dialogues in this fable, one of the most obvious meaning we can get is that 'no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted'. Many people probably know this idea as the law of 'sowing and reaping' which runs: 'one will reap what he sows'. At the beginning of the story, the lion shows mercy and releases the mouse. In the end, the lion reaps his previous kindness when the mouse sets him free. Just like in The Blind Girl, this meaning is dramatized through the actions and dialogues in the fable.
The meaning presented through a story is an idea. It is an abstract thing embodied in concrete and specific actions, characters, and objects that are called ‘dramatic symbols’. In The Blind Girl, the author creates two particular persons interacting in a certain setting. The author also depicts some physical objects like the eyes and the letter. He also presents an emotional occurrence, i.e. when the content of the letter is revealed. In The Lion and the Mouse, the author imagines two specific animals going through a definite experience in a particular setting. Some physical objects, namely paw, jaws, tree, wagon, ropes, etc.
All these dramatic symbols are not only used to embody the meaning. They also make the stories look like actual experiences so that the reader can feel the sense of life in the stories. Having such a sense of life makes a story and it's meaning memorable to its reader. Have you ever realized that you can feel an event you have undergone more vividly and remember it for a long time than an event reported to you?
To conclude this section, the reader can get the meaning of a story and can remember the story for a long time because the story employs 'dramatic symbols'—concrete and specific actions, characters, and objects.
Short stories are generally representative.
The characters, actions, dialogues, and settings in both The Blind Girl and The Lion and the Mouse are particular. However, the experiences, emotions, situations, and ideas about human life they embody can also exist in some groups or societies. They are not valid only for the direct set of particular characters in these stories. The tendency to be ‘a peanut forgetting its shell’ does not uniquely belong to the girl. Many people might have the same tendency. The ‘law of sowing and reaping’ presented in The Lion and the Mouse also applies to most—if not all--human societies. In this sense, short stories are generally representative. Although short stories are specific and independent, their meanings are usually applicable to actual larger groups of people.
Short stories Instruct and entertain
After reading reflecting The Blind Girl and The Lion and the Mouse, whether we realize it or not, to a higher extent, our experiences and understanding of life are broadened. Our sympathies are also extended as we put ourselves in the boyfriend's shoes. We feel sorry for him as the girl refuses to marry him. We also feel grateful when the mouse manages to set the lion free. Those stories relate to us and extend our understanding of other people's hope, need, wish, and motivation. They assist us to interact with our feelings. According to Widrich (2012), various researches have shown that reading stories promote the activation of our brain in charge of increasing understanding others and seeing the world through a new viewpoint. In this sense, the short stories have instructed you to have a better understanding of life. They help you humanize yourselves.
It has been shown earlier that short stories are a literary work whose meaning is dramatized or expressed through actions, and the presence of actions makes a short story interesting. Why? Simply because most people like actions. This can be easily proved by the fact that most people prefer watching action movies than documentary ones. Actions are one of the short story elements that make a short story interesting. Nobody would resist well-arranged actions that form a good story.
Besides, people sometimes need to skip their routines and find someone else's to entertain themselves. Short stories can facilitate this because they are a different 'world' the reader can enter. People also need to literally break free from their thoughts. Turning to short stories is one of the cheapest but valuable alternatives to take. Besides instructing, short stories also entertain.
Short stories are related to life
Before discussing this fifth quality of short stories, read the following story.
Once a dog ran into a museum filled with mirrors. The museum was very unique, the walls, the ceiling, the doors, and even the floors were made of mirrors. Seeing his reflections, the dog froze in surprise in the middle of the hall. He could see a whole pack of dogs surrounding him from all sides, from above and below.
The dog bared his teeth and barked all the reflections responded to it in the same way. Frightened, the dog barked frantically, the dog’s reflections imitated the dog and increased it many times. The dog barked even harder, but the echo was magnified. The dog, tossed from one side to another while his reflections also tossed around snapping their teeth.
Next morning, the museum security guards found the miserable, lifeless dog, surrounded by thousands of reflections of the lifeless dog. There was nobody to harm the dog. The dog died by fighting with his own reflections. ***
Both The Lion and the Mouse and The Reflections are fables. As stated earlier, The Lion and the Mouse reveals the law of 'sowing and reaping'. The Reflections reveals a bit similar idea, i.e., everything taking place in around us, be it good or evil, is the reflection of our feelings, thoughts, beliefs, desires, and actions. When the dog bared his teeth, the same poses were reflected. When it barked hard, magnified bark echoed. These actions revealed that the world is just a mirror. It does not bear good or bad on its own. So, to receive good things, one should pose god things too.
The two fables reveal that although some stories employ non-human characters and the stories seem unrealistic, they essentially dramatize the problem or truth about people. Their meanings concern with human life. Thus, how peculiar and unrealistic a short story may be, it is still related to human life.
Short stories are creative and imaginative
All forms of writing is essentially creative and imaginative. However, short stories and other fictions are said to be creative and imaginative because, unlike non-fiction, they do not only describe a condition actually exists or merely report events that actually took place. Short stories are indeed written using such description and report, but they are also provided with various invented and made-up elements. Hunters trapping lions to be presented to kings reported in The Lion and the Mouse are common in human civilization, at least up to the 20th century. However, the lion's excitement in hearing that mouse can help him one day is an imaginative element creation. The museum filled with mirrors in The Reflections could exist somewhere. The dog seeing his reflections in the mirrors is also factual. But the dog's actions to bark until he dies is the author's creation.
In a sense, a short story is a unique, independent world that is different from the actual world and the other fictional worlds created in other stories. It is possible to find various fables telling about a lion and a mouse, but the animal characters in each of these stories must be different from those in The Lion and the Mouse. The dialogues and actions in each of these stories are also unique. The differences in one or more of their elements make every story as a unique independent world.
To make the independent world created in a story acceptable, the author should make its elements internally consistent. All elements that build the world should support each other harmoniously. He can achieve such consistency by manipulating facts properly. The Lion and the Mouse, for instance, is a fable about the interaction of a lion and a mouse. To make the story realistic, the lion emerges as a powerful beast and the mouse a weak one. However, to enable the story to reveal the author's message, i.e. act of kindness will never be wasted, both animals are created to be able to communicate with each other. In this case, the author manipulated the fact that animals of different classes like a lion and a mouse can communicate effectively.
To make the story interesting, consistency alone is not enough. The author should also make the story focus and the meaning clear. This is facilitated by the author’s ability to alter experiences. In The Lion and the Mouse, the author does not tell us how the lion hunts to eat or what the mouse does after being released, and before he sets the lion free. The author just focuses on their actions and dialogues when the mouse disturbs the sleeping lion and when the lion is caught in a trap and is set free by the mouse. By altering the experiences, the author manages to focus on the idea of life he wants to express and make it clear.
Can you find out how the author of The Blind Girl includes creative and imaginative elements into the story works to achieve consistency and alter experiences to focus and make the idea clear?
Alternbend, L. and Lewis, L.L. (1966). A handbook for the study of fiction. London: Collier Macmillan Ltd.
Widrich, L. (2012). The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains. Retrieved from https://buffer.com/resources/science-of-storytelling-why-telling-a-story-is-the-most-powerful-way-to-activate-our-brains/