Short stories, not attention spans

Slurpy nova

When fans queue to see the movie Ender’s Game later this year, many of them will know that the movie is based on Orson Scott’s card 1985 novel of the same name.

It’s safe to assume that a great deal of them will have also read the book and the subsequent titles in the series too. But I would bet that only a handful would know (mostly the hardcore fans) that the idea and many of the characters in Ender’s Game had humble beginnings in a short story, published in Analog magazine in 1977.

Whenever I hear about short stories that have triggered the creation of a larger work, or when I read the works of Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, or the dozens of other short story writers whose ideas ‘made it’, not only am I comforted by the thought that I’m not wasting my time learning the craft, but also by the promise that a short story can lead to bigger things. In my case, I hope my journey into short fiction will lead to a novel.

Today, there’s even more encouragement for both readers and writers of boiled-down prose: apparently, short stories are back in style. People are buying short stories and more are writing them as well. The internet is exploding with works of short fiction; millions of words of prose are being churned out every week, and there are now new and easier (and sometimes lucrative) ways to self-publish. The burgeoning number of competitions and creative writing courses coming online are also fostering emerging writers and innovative formats.

But why is the short story experiencing a renaissance? Is it due to our increasing need for concise packets of information? Has technology decreased out attention spans so much that we can no longer focus on a continuous narrative for more than ten pages?

Short stories fill the need

The range and diversity of content we consume are increasing. We have to keep on top of our emails, stay abreast of current affairs, watch the latest video memes, and login to our preferred social media platforms so that our friends know that we’re still alive… all this takes time. Travel on any mode of transport and you’ll still see people reading novels (made of real paper), but it’s more likely that they’ll be plugged into their mobile devices, trying to fit in a few minutes of entertainment before they go to work or school.

Novels are perfect for weekends or days when the only item on the agenda is lying on your back at the beach, but for the time-poor – the opportunistic reader who craves an engaging narrative during a coffee break – short stories are the perfect format. And with the advent of devices and electronic readers, they’ve become more portable, and therefore convenient than ever before.

Then there’s the web, and the slow, but perceptible, evolution of the written word that’s occurred. Whether it be a news story, a blog piece or a government website, the short narrative is prevailing. ‘Easy-to-read’, ‘scannable’ and ‘interesting’ (whatever that means) are just some of the adjectives used to describe the new criteria for the online word – we’ve had to rethink the way we present and structure content to make it digestible ‘online’.

More and more are writers being forced to ‘get to the point’, because we don’t have time to wait, you see? A well-written short story that provides a rounded narrative (and sometimes even a satisfying pay off) caters for this desire. At a few thousand words, it fits on our screens without too much scrolling, and promises us something in return for a small part of our day. Some consider this the result of an impatient and low-attention-span generation, but it’s more than that: despite competing demands for their attention, people still love stories and want to be able to read in the narrow slots of time available to them. Short stories are fast to download, fast to read, and present an idea and a new way of thinking about a genre or topic during times when deeper and more reflective reading is not practical. 

The short story and aspiring writers

The fact that so many great stories started their lives as works of short fiction (and that short stories are again à la mode) is heartening for new writers. It encourages us to think of every story we write, no matter how raw or unstructured it may seen, as a seed. Short fiction is an ideal way to explore characters and ideas, and also to practise the art of writing without getting bogged down on whether your plot is working or not.

Would be novelists can take advantage of the popularity of short stories by going after the growing audience and testing their work. If you’re like me and laying there at night wondering if your idea is good enough, submitting to a journal or entering a short story competition, or even posting your work to an online short story reading group can help.

There are many reasons why we should bother writing short stories at all, most of which have been well-put, but personally, I’m looking for a story that won’t stay short; that’s bursting at the seams of its word limit and is desperate to become into a novel. In the coming months I’m going to start this journey and, through a series of short fiction, lay down the foundations for a bigger work. I’m starting off with some good advice and hope to submit my better experiments to some of the awesome science fiction and fantasy journals out there… and trying, just trying, to become one of those prolific short story magicians whose work somehow rose through the fug.

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