The Power of the Short Story

For all the bite-sized TV dramas, music videos, and social media posts out there, it seems people often overlook the common thread that these share: they are all short stories.

And while plenty of psychologists and social scientists argue that our attention span is shrinking due to the A.D.D nature of modern media, our human fascination with the “brief” long precedes Tik Tok, Snapchat, and Instagram.

Although the term “short story” is a fairly modern entity, the phenomenon of the brief account is as old as language itself.

In a sense, the roots of the short story can be traced all the way to the first-ever “a funny thing happened to me on the way to the___” conversation. But beyond that, its more identifiable roots lie in the origins of myths and the oral tradition. Now when we hear the term “oral tradition” today, many of us in Western culture probably think of Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey—which, as anyone who has read them knows, are anything but short! But the fact is that oral tradition spans across every ancient civilization, and every society had its stories of creation and the struggle between good and evil—what we generally refer to as “myths.” These accounts are meant to express and illustrate cultural values and truths, in a form that can easily be passed by word-of-mouth from one generation to the next.

While some attribute the brevity of myths and fables to the lack of literacy in some civilizations (arguing that short tales are more easily remembered and retold), this does not explain why the concept of short stories has survived and even sharpened in recent centuries. In fact, it wasn’t until literacy began to blossom in the Western middle class during the 19th century that the short story asserted itself prominently in publication.

So what do we learn from all this?

Perhaps a minor history lesson, but more importantly, I think these facts suggest something:

The continued prevalence of short stories in a widely literate society points to the lasting power of brevity.

Just ask yourself what you think of when you hear the term “short story.” Most of us probably think of a tightly packaged little tale, whose every word counts—perhaps even more so than in a novel. Ask any TV screenwriter if it’s harder to write for a 30-minute show or a 60-minute—the answer is usually the 30-minute show. Of course novels and feature films are incredibly difficult to write. But the fact is that when you have a limited amount of words or minutes, the audience is going to scrutinize your work with a higher-caliber magnifying glass, because they will remember more of it. If you make a blunder, they will notice! This means that every word, every phrase, every scene had better pull its own weight, which eliminates the option of “filler” and what I call “verbal flab.”

This does not mean that brevity necessitates bluntness.

Think of the Gettysburg Address: 272 words of metaphor that earned the speech its acclaim as one of the most candid yet elegant addresses in history. Although Lincoln makes his point succinctly, he does so in a rhetorically brilliant and compelling narrative form, using the story of America’s past and present to inspire its future. Students still memorize it in classrooms today.

So, no– being brief does not mean being blunt. What it does mean is that condensing a message or story into short form can pack an additional punch that even the most distracted, media-saturated millennial might remember. 😉

What’s your take on the power of brevity?

Do you read short stories as often or more often than novels?

Confession: I read novels more, so I don’t feel I have enough scope of experience to make a judgement on this next question… But do you find that the short stories you have read are generally more powerful or less powerful than novels? Do you think this has to do with length?

4 Comments on “The Power of the Short Story

  1. What a great idea for a post. I don’t think I would be able to write anything on it, though. Yet, you managed to do it so well.

    I will be the first one to complain about people’s attention spans. I will keep on believing that I have fewer readers than some because of the length of my posts. They are on average about 1,000 words. It’s much easier to find the time to read a couple of hundred words and then leave a like than reading 1k words and leaving a comment. Time is money. I know that.

    There was a time when my CW pieces were 99 words long only. That was when I saw the biggest difference. How can you tell a story in fewer than 100 words? I want to go back to those prompts. Once my life stops being stormy for a moment.

    With that being said, I like my posts to have substance (i.e. more than a few words). Also, I think the nature of my NROP requires it. However, when it comes to creative writing, I don’t mind short stories. I don’t care if they’re novels or short stories. I just want the story to be entertaining. When it comes to blogs and ebooks, I prefer shorter stories. Otherwise, I get distracted. I’d love to read a story that is 4k words, but I know it won’t happen. So I don’t write it, either.

    • Thank you! And of course, thank you for these thoughts. Yes, it does seem like (unless one has a massive following) longer posts are often skimmed or passed over in the blogging world. As you say, it is somewhat understandable, but it does make it hard for those who are trying to express complex thoughts and arguments that can’t be packaged into a couple hundred words.

      And yes, it is so hard to read a long story on a screen!!! I’d a thousand times rather curl up with a blanket or sprawl in the sun while reading a story– regardless of how long or short. 🙂

  2. I expect a western reader prefers a longer story so they can get more invested in characters, world building, and whatever else. Look at the other media that is prevalent. Most “successful” TV shows run for many years, book series like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, or the Hunger Games all have multiple books and are often built on after the initial story is done. I’ve found many a short story more compelling because it dose not try to explain nuance or overly develop the plot and instead compels the reader to think about it and try to figure it out. A great example of this is the King in Yellow. It’s an early Sci-Fi made of a series of short stories that seem to be unrelated and nonsensical. Because of this, trying to understand the nature of the book, and the meaning behind it takes longer than actually reading the thing.

    These are just my ramblings. . . It would be interesting to look at other cultures to see if they have more short stories and how that effects their consumption of media.

    • That is a very good point– sometimes the understated, or less fleshed-out stories leave you with more to think about. Our brains are designed to fill in the gaps and make connections, which means that we are often more engaged by a story that invites us to do so. And yes, that is fascinating how other cultures are shaped by their form of story-telling! I’d love to know how they view and use long-form versus short-form narratives.

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