The Central Problem of (Short) Stories

The central problem, says C.S. Lewis, is that for stories to be stories, they must be a series of events; yet at the same time it must be understood that this series is only a net to catch something else. And this “something else” has no sequence in it; it is “something other than a process and much more like a state or quality.” The result is that the means of fiction are always at war with its end. Lewis says, “In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied.”

How does a writer convert mere events — one thing after another — into significance? This raises the additional problem that even as writers encourage the reader to keep turning pages to find out what happens next, they must make the poor reader understand that ultimately what happens next is not what is important. This basic incompatibility, which has been noted by many critics, is much more obvious in the short narrative (which, in its frequent focus on a frozen moment in time, seems atemporal) than the long narrative (which seems primarily just a matter of one thing after another).

Although authors want to communicate that which is instantaneous or timeless, they are always trapped by the timebound nature of words.

— Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity

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