This week: Cultural HangupsEdited by: Annette
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Dear readers and writers of short stories,
The definition of the short story is sometimes attributed to Edgar Allan Poe.
Since there is short fiction available from all around the world, there should be more definitions than Poe's.
Edgar Allan Poe defined the short story as a work of fiction that is limited by three guiding rules.
First: A short story must be short enough that it can be read in one sitting. Instead of giving a word count, the idea is that you should be able to read a story in the amount of time it takes to smoke a cigar. That is about the right length for a short story. Please do not smoke when you read. It was okay in the 1880s, but we frown upon that now.
Second: The short story is ended by its climax. The short story ends when any additional information would now be redundant. For instance, a crime story ends when the reader finds out whodunit. A romance story ends when the couple pair up. A horror story ends when the monster is vanquished. Any additional information given to a reader, like what happens to the perpetrator is just no longer needed for a short story.
Third: The mood in the short story should stay the same. If you are telling as suspenseful story, do not start out with your main character slowly sipping a cup of coffee while watching the flaneurs parade past him. We don't have the time for this and it has nothing to do with suspense. If you are going to tell a suspenseful story, make sure your reader feels anxious from the first sentence on. Create the mood as early as possible and keep it.
The above rules for short stories are not only those that Edgar Allan Poe prescribes, they also fit into the Western hero's journey as observed by Joseph Campbell. While Campbell's hero's journey is broad enough and can thus be used to describe many stories, it is not the only way to tell a story.
We hear a lot about those tales that fit into the neat hero's journey format because they are easy to use in film and TV. There are many that do not follow that format. In some cultures, it's not very interesting what one hero does. The story is more interested in telling how a community reacted to something. There are thousands and thousands of stories that exist because something had to be explained. If you look at Native American folktales, the stories are told to explain the world. If you read the collected fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, you will find some that are an observation or warning about behaviors.
Some audiences outside of North America do not enjoy Hollywood's fixation on the hero's journey. Whether you read short stories from other cultures or you watch movies from around the world, you will find that there are many ways to define the short story.
Do you dare challenge the established "hero's journey" in your short stories?
Let me know in the Comments Box below my Editor's Picks.
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Replies to the question "Do you think the first word of a story is important?" asked in "First Word" :
JCosmos wrote: yes first words matter a lot. i have so many examples in mind. Equally valid for novels and poems i think.
I agree that poetry should definitely have a first word that is meaningful to the overall piece. Novels might have a little leeway, but, again, a strong first word that sets the stage can't hurt.
Elfin Dragon - contest hunting wrote: I do think the first word (or words) of a story are very important. It sets the tone of a story for the reader. It can draw your reader into the story or even make your reader less likely to continue reading it.
At least the first few words for sure. The actual first word is like the top of the pops in relevance, but the first few words can work together.
W.D.Wilcox wrote: Great newsletter topic!
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