….from a stranger. What an intense, terrifying, exciting thought. It’s how Stephen King describes a short story: a kiss in the dark from a stranger.
There are two things that strike me about this extraordinary image. One is its transience – think how fleeting even the longest kiss can be. The other is the sense of mystery, of the unknown, contained in the description. I am also conscious that although a kiss can be the most sought-after, longed for embrace, a kiss from a stranger, in the dark, might be nothing short of an assault.
So what is King’s phase suggesting to us? That a short story is something fleeting, unknown and open to different interpretations.
Without the roomy expanse of a novel, a short story must be, by definition, brief. As a writer you don’t have the time or space to paint a complete picture, you have to content yourself with conveying just enough information to suggest everything you haven’t been able to include. It’s the art of inference. Yet even within the limited scope of a short story, it’s still possible to cover a big subject, you just have to be more selective about how you tackle it. In Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary Tolstoy and Flaubert take hundreds of pages to describe the downfall of their heroines, in a short story you might focus on one pivotal scene, making it resonate with what has come before and what might follow. I suspect resonance is an important quality when writing in miniature.
All good fiction – short or long – should have something of the unknown at its heart, an essential mystery that the plot sets out to resolve – or not: unanswered questions pack a lot of narrative power, giving an extra bang for their buck, which might be particularly appropriate in shorter fiction when space for answers is in short supply. Don’t necessarily play safe and write about what you know – write about what you don’t know, instead
In a longer piece of writing, you have the luxury of exploring different themes at different points of the narrative. With fewer words, sometimes these themes have to be dealt with concurrently rather than consecutively, with several different layers operating at the same time. Although this happens in large-scale works as well, in short stories everything is a little more dense and concentrated. If you have different themes or different notes, sounding at the same time, perhaps there is more scope for interpretation. Think of it like shot silk: if you hold the material up to the light one way it is duck egg blue, but tilt it another way and it looks crimson. The fabric is woven in such a way that both are true at the same time.
Why not take Stephen King’s phrase – a kiss in the dark from a stranger – as the starting point for a short story of your own?