The rise of short fiction: storytelling for the digital generation
Rarely does a person begin his or her foray into the world of writing with a fully fledged novel; almost all of us start off writing short fiction to test the waters. But while the novel may be the dream, the short story is no less noble, and can have just as lasting an effect on the reader.
Short fiction is gaining in popularity, and writers are finding success and exposure within the form.
Short fiction is not a new form. Anyone who’s read Kafka will know he was a master of the short story, sci-fi fans revere Isaac Asimov’s work, and there are entire online communities dedicated to inspiring the writing of short fiction. However, the form has often been overlooked as a somewhat ‘hobbyist’ pursuit, rather than true literature.
Now, though, short fiction is gaining in popularity, and writers are finding success and exposure within the form. Possibly the most famous short story writer is Canadian Alice Munro — almost her entire catalogue is made up of short story collections. In 2013 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, demonstrating that the form is no less worthy than the novel.
There are also a number of prestigious awards aimed solely at the short story writer, such as the BBC National Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, and the Costa Short Story Award. They’re great opportunities to get your writing seen, and the winners pocket a healthy sum of money to boot. There are also many different online and print outlets that regularly publish readers’ work. I’ve explored these publication routes in more detail with another article.
Short fiction’s increase in popularity could be attributed to a number of factors, but — in my eyes — the most important change is not to do with the writing itself, but the world in which it is read. Our lives are faster and busier than they were 20 years ago, and free time dwindles away for all of us.
Most people first experienced this when letters were superseded by email, meaning we could check our mail whenever we sat down at a computer. Now, the advent and subsequent ubiquity of smartphones allows us to be contacted in any way, at any time. We’re continually bombarded by information — so much so that often it’s hard to find a moment to get away from it all, and sit down for a couple of hours to make some serious headway into a novel. This lifestyle is here to stay, and while the novel hasn’t succumbed to the thorny clutches of our 24-hour information culture quite yet — and hopefully never will — the short story truly is the 21st century’s form.
Our penchant for instant gratification has affected all forms of media. I can watch a whole series of fascinating shorts on YouTube in the time it would take me to find my X-Files DVD and watch a single episode, and I can scroll through an entire art gallery’s collection from my sofa. The same goes for literature. I can download a selection of stories and finish one in a single half-hour train journey, and this accessibility is one of the main attractions of short fiction. Sometimes, we just want to be entertained without the commitment that comes with reading a novel. If we can get the same emotional investment and satisfying conclusion all in a single sitting, why would we not?
- Learn how to plan your short stories
- Discover the importance of creating unforgettable characters
- Find out how to pitch your stories and which competitions to enter
Writing short fiction
When it comes to the writing, short stories don’t mess about. There’s no room for languid description or excessive verbosity, and they require a skillful writer to ensure the necessities are retained while anything superfluous is trimmed away. These stories are crisp, concise, and have an exhilarating urgency to them. It’s pure, concentrated storytelling — think double espresso, rather than grande latte.
Writing short stories can also be a cathartic experience. Much akin to poetry, a complete story of a few thousand words can be spilled onto the page in a night of unbridled emotion or inspiration. Then, when it comes to the editing process, you have a fully formed skeleton on which to build. Not only does this give a much quicker turnaround of work, but it allows the writer to explore a much wider range of styles and themes over a number of pieces. We’ve all had that moment where our idea fizzles out, and we’re left with half a story which is going nowhere. If you have an idea, an interesting way of testing its viability is to try to tell it in a set number of words. At the very least, you’ll end up with an interesting experiment, and often simply getting to the end of a story will spark ideas which you can use to flesh out the middle, if you wish to do so.
Traditionally, a short story ranges anywhere between 1,000 to 10,000 words, and to the inexperienced that could sound like plenty of room. In reality, though, this is a tight limit in which to tell a well-rounded and compelling tale. Setting oneself a strict word count — as well as a way to work out a plot — is a great technique to employ if you find your writing full of unnecessary exposition and purple prose. Being concise is an essential skill every modern writer needs to master.
This is what our Writing Short Fiction course is all about. Over eight weeks, you’ll explore different aspects of how effective short stories are written, including structure, characterisation, point of view, setting and time. You’ll be writing from the very beginning, honing your skills and sharing your work with your fellow students in our exclusive forums. Whether you want to perfect the short form, are looking to brush up on your skills, or want to prepare yourself before writing something a little longer, this is a good place to start.