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.
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:
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.”
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?