Image: Matthew Loffhagen
As any author knows, there’s a lot more to writing than just starting your story. One key aspect of producing the best writing you can is choosing the right form in which to present it. This is particularly the case for writers of short prose, who have a wealth of options available. Is your writing short fiction or mixed genre? Does it suit memoir or essay? And, while we’re at it, what’s the difference?
In this article I’ll be looking at the defining features of each category of short prose and suggesting the style of writing they suit best. Though there is often overlap between categories, there are definite benefits to each particular form of short prose, and this guide should help you take advantage of the ones that will work for you.
I’ve talked before about how short stories are NOT defined by their length. Short stories are pieces of fictional narration which focus on a limited number of narrative concepts (usually one to three).
Their length is a result of this focus, with the story ‘built’ to best showcase the chosen concepts. Characters, settings and words are limited because including more of them would make the short story less effective. This is as opposed to a story which is just a fictional narrative that doesn’t last very long – a not-very-long story.There's a lot more to short fiction than length, and readers know it. #amwriting #writingtip Click To Tweet
Many authors find to their frustration that short stories as a form do not suit not-very-long narratives. The process by which short stories bring out the key ideas and imagery of a well-suited conceit does not translate to the journey offered by a narrative written in the style of longer fiction. There may not be an official difference between short stories and regular stories that end quickly, but readers can tell them apart instinctively.
An offshoot form of the short story, though still within the same category, is flash fiction. These are effectively short stories designed to deal with only one narrative concept, and tend to be very short – again the intent is that form accentuates content. A single idea is honed to its perfect form. Writers who attempt to turn an underdeveloped idea into flash fiction will therefore often find their job impossible.
Short fiction of either type is therefore best suited to a writer with a developed fictional narrative that suits brevity of form, and who is more interested in telling a story than making a specific point.
As a term, ‘essay’ is often associated with non-fiction, and particularly with academic work. The definition for writers, however, is far more comprehensive. An essay is a short narrative, fiction or non-fiction, the intent of which is to make, support and persuade the reader to see a specific point.
In a short story, the writer might want the reader to infer a particular point, but the narrative itself takes precedence – if the reader grasps the point but ceases to engage with or appreciate the story, the writer has ‘failed’ within the confines of the genre. In an essay, however, the writer’s point should be their first and foremost concern. They might utilize a variety of narrative tools to make it, but those tools are there to serve the point.
Because of this, essays do often follow a somewhat academic template. The writer states the point they wish to make, provides a narrative which acts as evidence, and then restates the point directly or indirectly while recalling the pertinent narrative evidence.
This can be seen in George Orwell’s essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’. In this essay, Orwell recounts an incident where he shot a rampaging elephant as a police officer in Burma. It’s a fascinating story, but Orwell’s point is the perspective the incident gives on how the British Empire (of whose rule he disapproved) saw their subjects.
One day something happened which in a roundabout way was enlightening. It was a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.
– George Orwell, ‘Shooting an Elephant’
Though disagreeing with the way in which they are ruled, the narrator also despises many of the populace due to their aggression towards him. This comes to a head when he engages the elephant not out of duty or fear for his life, but because he is unwilling to fail in front of the assembled audience.
The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do.
– George Orwell, ‘Shooting an Elephant’
Though the shooting is a pretty gripping narrative element, it’s not presented as a story with its own merit, but as an example of how imperialistic thinking develops, and poisons the soul. Essays are best used by writers for whom the central point is more important than the narrative which supports it. The story is presented as evidence; its chief importance is its function in supporting the argument.Want to make a particular point? Consider writing an essay rather than a short story. #writingtip Click To Tweet
This is an often overlooked option for authors with a particular desire to make a point. While this can feel preachy in a short story, where narrative is more important than authorial conclusion, it is at home in the essay. In fact, here the story might be more appreciated, as less is expected of it in the way of direct entertainment.
A memoir is a non-fiction narrative of an event to which the author was a witness. There is therefore assumed to be a degree of bias and subjective reporting – the memoir is non-fiction but not quite ‘fact’.
Like the short story, it is understood that memoirs will have a narrative path; they will have a beginning, middle and end in the same way that a story does (or at least will break that pattern in the same ways a story can get away with).
Boys’ voices leap out of the little speaker – ‘Can’t buy me love!’ No warning. No introduction. Straight into the room. It’s the Beatles.
I don’t move a muscle whilst the song plays. I don’t want to miss one second of it. I listen with every fibre of my being. The voices are so alive. I love that they don’t finish the word love – they give up on it halfway through and turn it into a grunt. The song careens along, only stopping once for a scream. I know what that scream means: Wake up! We’ve arrived! We’re changing the world!
– Viv Albertine, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.
In a memoir, length is more related to the available narrative than how it enhances the content; after all, if something really happened then the author is less able to add and subtract for ideal length. By the same token, however, short memoirs with insufficient narrative interest are even less excusable. The writer is expected to simply not tell that story.
Memoirs are great for relaying personal stories that will give something to the reader, and best when presented as part of a collection. On their own, memoirs often benefit from being turned into essays; a personal story used to present a wider point is likely to be better received than an individual story an author felt moved to tell about themselves. A short story is accepted as a piece of entertainment, an essay as making a point, and yet a memoir seems to need a further reason to exist (most commonly this reason is that it’s about a well-known person or event).
Mixed genre is a form of creative work which encompasses, but is not limited to, short prose. It’s characterized by a mixing of categories (as the name implies). In terms of short prose, this could mean a piece of fiction which appears to be an essay but becomes something else (perhaps through interrupting footnotes), or a memoir that embraces fictional elements. Dave Eggers’ semi-autobiographical A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is mostly factual, but contains characters who are actually amalgamations of several real-life people. There are multiple moments in the book where Eggers brings fictional elements to the fore – admitting that events presented in close proximity actually happened further apart, or allowing his characters to engage in clearly fictional behaviour, such as realizing they’re in a book.
“Yeah, I changed your name.”
“Oh. Right. Now, why John again?”
“That was my dad’s name.”
“Jesus! So I’m your dad, too. Fuck, man, this is just too much. You are such a freak!”
– Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
This is different to fictional works which purport to be based on real events. The key is the way in which the reader is asked to approach the text – as a work of fiction with references to fact or as a work of fact which indulges in fiction.
Though the events in this book bear similarity to those of that long malaise, my life, many of the characters and happenings are creations solely of the imagination. In such cases, I of course disclaim any responsibility for their resemblance to real people or events, which would be coincidental… In creating such characters, I have drawn freely from the imagination and adhered only loosely to the pattern of my past life. To this extent, and for this reason, I ask to be judged as a writer of fantasy.
– Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
Despite the above quote, Frederick Exley’s book A Fan’s Notes, subtitled ‘a fictional memoir’, goes out of its way to make the fictive elements seem like noteworthy additions. This is in contrast to books like Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, which may contain elements based on real experiences, but is presented as a fictional narrative happening to a fictional character.
This type of fiction is common in blogging, where writers are happy creating a pseudo-fictional account of their own lives (more cynical commentators might argue that social media has made this the internet’s most popular form of written entertainment).
Dabbling in mixed genre can be tricky. The number one concern for authors is that the reader is aware what is being attempted. A memoir which suddenly becomes a short story is great if the reader is in on things, but if not, the writer might be accused of lying or misleading their audience. Likewise, a writer recalling their own experiences from the fictionalized perspective of another character could be accused of putting words in another person’s mouth if the audience does not understand the fictional intent.Writing short prose? Consider mixed genre writing – it may be the perfect form of your story. Click To Tweet
The advantage is that writers can borrow the best parts of all genres of short prose, mixing the creative indulgences of a short story with the no-frills approach of an essay, or the assumed relevance of a memoir.
With short prose, experimentation is key
All forms of short prose have benefits. Sometimes you’ll find the one for you by just thinking about what’s best for your story, and sometimes you’ll need to experiment to find the answer. Many authors don’t consider essays or mixed genre writing for their projects, but these forms of short prose aren’t unrewarding, and even if they’re not where you end up, they might add something to a project that you wouldn’t otherwise have considered.
Have you tried writing a fiction essay, or read some mixed genre writing where the author wasn’t clear enough about what they were doing? Let me know in the comments.