What Do We Mean By ‘Story’?

imagesRecently, over on Tales from the Reading Room, Litlove reviewed a short story collection by Tom Barbash.  As usual, I commented on my inability to engage with the short story form, even though I frequently used to include examples in my teaching.  In reply, Litlove asked me whether I enjoyed fairy tales, because were they not a form of short story, and I had to admit that I did, if only because I have frequently used them as material for analysis in my research work on narrative organisation.  However, something must have made me uneasy about this, something that then lodged in the back of my mind and which my few remaining little grey cells have been worritting away at ever since, until my concerns finally coalesced while I was out walking this morning.  I enjoy and have worked with fairy tales because they really are short stories whereas so many texts that are called short stories actually are not.

The fairy tale is, quite simply, a story that is short.  But, short or no, for the most part, it is a complete story.  To put it bluntly (although I would slaughter any student who chose to be quite so blunt) it has a beginning, it has a middle and it has an end.  Or, to be a little more precise, it follows the canonical pattern of exposition, inciting moment, igniting moment, development, climax, dénouement and conclusion.

Let’s take as an example that well known short story, The Three Little Pigs. The exposition introduces us to the main characters and the salient facts about their current life style (i.e like so many grown up sons and daughters they are still living at home with their mother).  But, these pigs are about to strike out for independence and so at inciting moment they all go out into the world to build their own individual houses.  Yea for the pigs!

Now, at this point the story could go off in all sorts of different directions.  It could turn out to be a tale of sibling rivalry as each of the pigs tries to outdo the other two in terms of building the biggest and best house.  It could have a developmental aspect to it as, having built their new homes, the pigs then decide to launch out into the business world and give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘bringing home the bacon’.  What this plot line needs is an igniting moment to point readers in the right direction so that they can find their way safely through the fairy tale forest to the end of the story.  And so, along comes Mr Wolf and in the space of a huff and a puff our tale becomes one of survival against the evils of the outside world.

So, through the development section we watch as pig after pig finds his house destroyed by the evil machinations of Mr Big Bad.  (Please, no comments about the way in which the figure of the wolf is wickedly maligned and that really they are all nice, kind animals who live a quiet family life and wouldn’t so much as hurt a fly.  This one isn’t after flies.  He’s after roast pig and he’s the baddie.  OK?)  Finally, however, the pattern is broken and at climax pig number three, bravely sheltering her (check out the gender correct version in the Storychest reading scheme) two brothers manages to build a house that defeats the evil intentions of the wicked wolf and we are left to follow the dénouement with bated breath as the villain of the piece tries to climb down the chimney only to fall head first into the pot and become the chief ingredient in the siblings’ housewarming party.  As I said before – Yea for the pigs!

And those three intrepid house builders then get the reward that they deserve because the conclusion of the story, the point at which we move out of the event line and let the protagonists sink back into a settled and tranquil life, is the one that we all know so well – And they all lived happily ever after.  The Three Little Pigs may be short but it is a fully structured story.

However, my suspicion is (and it can be no more than a suspicion because I haven’t done the necessary research) that most so called short stories are actually nothing of the sort.  Rather they are parts of stories and we, as readers, are left to construct the elements that are missing.  Not that I’m suggesting that there’s anything wrong or indeed unusual about that.  I’ve done a lot of work with children on single frame cartoons which normally offer you either the climax or the dénouement of the story and you only understand what is funny or pointed about them because you are able to reconstruct the rest of the narrative from prior knowledge either of a specific situation or a well rehearsed trope.  I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of seeing a political cartoon in the daily press and being completely unable to interpret it because we haven’t been following the particular news item to which it is related.

Perhaps this points to one reason that so many of us have a problem with the short story as a form; it demands so much more of us as readers than does the full-blown narrative.  It can also be much more tantalising, especially if the dénouement and/or conclusion is missing.  Some of us like our stories nicely rounded off.  We may not demand the happy ever after, but we do like to know what happened in the end.

Of course, this is the point at which I should analyse half a dozen so called short stories just to show that they are not – stories, that is.  But, as I’ve said, I’m not in a position to do that – yet.  Because if there is one thing that might galvanise me into action and finally get me reading short stories then it is the possibility of being able to analyse them to see what actually is happening in an organisational sense.  Sad person that I am, I love grammatical analysis at whatever the level of hierarchy might be appropriate.

So, I am announcing The Short Story Project, in which I undertake to read one short story a week and do my best to analyse its narrative structure in order to see if my theory holds water.  The first thing I need to do is get hold of a good anthology because single authored collections are not going to work for this.  I need a range of stories by different writers and if possible from different nationalities and various time periods. I can go and have a good mooch round the library and local bookshops but if any of you have suggestions then they would be most welcome.  As the results, whatever they might be, become apparent I can report back on them here.  If I can keep it going for a year then I should have enough material to offer at least some tentative conclusions and maybe eventually even come up with enough evidence to support a move to rename the genre altogether!

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48 thoughts on “What Do We Mean By ‘Story’?

  1. What a fantastic project! I’m looking forward to reading your posts on the short stories and seeing what conclusions you make. I really enjoyed reading this post and am interested in the points you bring up, particularly your point about short stories being ‘parts of stories’ that mean readers have to almost fill in the gaps themselves. Personally I really like this about short stories and, in some ways, I find them more powerful because everything isn’t rounded off or completed, and things are left unsaid. I don’t know if this makes them any less of a short story than ones with a clear beginning, middle, and end but after reading your post it has made me think about what we can class as a short story. I’m looking forward to reading your conclusions!

    1. A fascinating idea! Good sources for short stories are Oxford anthologies such as VS Pritchett’s Oxford Book Of Short Stories. Also Joyce Carol Oate’s American ( a particularly rich source), Douglas Dunn’s Scottish, William Trevor’s Irish, AS Byatt’s English. Oxford also have good anthologies of women’s,ghost, science fiction and detection stories. Robert Chandler’s New Penguin Book Of Russian Short Stories is outstanding as is Alberto Mangruels collection of fantastic short fiction Dark Water.
      The Irish master of the short story Frank O Connor wrote a book on the form called The Lonely Voice and suggested that the short story was much closer to the ballad or poetry than to the novel and Pritchett writes that it is a form that is particularly suitable to the modern world. Yet an Alice Munro story has much of the heft of a novel and lots of readers don’t like short stories! I love them so will be absolutely gripped to see what you choose and what you post to us. Good reading!

      1. Thank you Ian. Oxford and Penguin are wonderful sources and I should have thought of them myself. Apart from anything else they will give me a really wide selection and in the first place, at least, that is what I need. I have been looking for a project to get my teeth into but which would also be of interest to others, especially my blogging friends. I hope I may have found it.

    2. I don’t think it makes them any less of an experience, Gemma, I just question whether it makes them any less of a story in the way that a student of narrative organisation would define the term. But then, is that the right way to define story? It certainly isn’t the only way. There is something going on here to do with reader response theory as well. I have been looking for a project to really get my teeth into and this might just prove to be the very thing.

  2. Richard Zimler co-edited Children’s Hour a collection of short stories for a children centred charity. His own entry is as near a perfect story as I’ve ever read. I can’t lay my hands on my copy – (it’s out of reach and I need a tall person to retrieve it!) so I can’t give more details. Sara Maitland is an excellent short story writer and often uses myth, fairy story, legend and bible story to set her off. William Trevor is another master. Ali Smith, John McGahern, DH Lawrence, Elizabeth Taylor have written very good short stories, there are others on the edge of my memory – I can send names when they surface. All I’ve mentioned have satisfied my taste, even profoundly. Do you want titles?
    Great project.

    1. It’s titles of anthologies by a number of authors that I’m looking for, Carol, and so I shall certainly see if I can track down a copy of the Zimler, thank you. Initially, at least I need to select pretty much randomly otherwise I might screw the results by being selective in what I read.

  3. Hurray! This will be so interesting! I’m sending the link to ten stories you can read online, picked out by flavorwire:
    http://flavorwire.com/379177/10-more-wonderful-short-stories-to-read-for-free-online
    The above article also includes a link to the first 10-best-stories you can read online, and both seem like a good selection of modern storytelling to me. However, I’d add a couple of authors whose short stories I really like – Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie. I found the latter to be particularly good at the form, and I listen to the Poirot short stories (read mostly by David Suchet) when I’m feeling poorly. Both Christie and Fitzgerald are beginning-middle-and-enders, which is the kind of story that I like best, too.

    1. Thanks, Litlove. I’ve been thinking while I was out this afternoon that looking for material on the internet would be a good idea because then I could convert it to pdf format and annotate it as I analyse. I shall certainly follow through on the link and see what else I can find. Thanks for the initial prompt.

  4. Very entertaining and also thought-provoking. The “Norton Anthology of Short Fiction” is a standard in the U.S., then there’s “The Art of the Tale,” edited by Daniel Halpern (which probably supports your contention best, as “tale” is a little more ambiguous than “story”), “Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World,” edited by Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel, and “The Story and Its Writer,” by Ann Charters. You’ll notice that the famous Norton edition begs the question you’re trying to decide by calling its contributions “short fiction” without demur, Halpern goes for the word “tale,” which suggests something more antique, Clerk and Siegel even have a few poems and pieces I would perhaps call “thought-scapes” in theirs; only Charters calls hers “stories.” Still, from what I’ve seen of these volumes (from which I regularly use “stories” as things to post about), they mostly fall within the realm of what is defined as the classic short story. I do acknowledge that the situation you describe as far as incompleteness or inconclusiveness goes is more characteristic of the late modern and contemporary short story. I’m fascinated to hear what you have to say. As I once learned in what was called a “comparative literature” class, what a lot of theorists used to argue about vis-a-vis the short story was what was a short story exactly in terms of length, what was a nouvelle, what a novel, what a novella, what an anecdote, i.e., they were obsessed mainly with length and overall expositional curve (they were mostly male theorists; aren’t men always obsessed by length? Tee-hee!). Anyway, I hope you can find some use in my response. The anthologies I’ve named are not by as many famous people as some of the ones your other responders have named, but I went ahead and listed them because sometimes it’s useful to know what the cultural mean is. Fair sailing!

    1. Many many thanks SO. There looks to be some wonderful stuff to explore here, especially the Non-Western World book. One of the interesting things about the methodology I use for analysing narratives is that it can be shown to fit stories from all over the world. It will be interesting to see how it works for shorter pieces. I am also interested in the fact that so many of the titles avoid the term short story. It would seem that there is some general unease about it.

  5. Interesting project. I like short stories but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a “fan.” Why not? Because similar to what you’ve said, I’ve found them to be rather skeletal, bony. The whole thing is there in a fashion, beginning, middle, end, but there’s nothing more – not much flesh on those bones. Who wants to go to snuggle down with a bag of bones? How comforting is that?

    Gemma said short stokes can be very powerful and indeed I’ve found that to be true – Ian mentioned Alice Munro, a nice example. In a good short story every word counts, there is not one extra word. They’re just, like I said, bare bones although Munro’s bones are so thick they feel quite complete in their way. I figure that’s why short stories aren’t totally satisfying in the way that a whole big juicy novel with character and setting development, two or three plot threads, and a closure after denouement feels.

    But I’m curious to know what you find out – is there a real beginning, a middle and an end? That may be, at least in part, a matter of definition, too. Anyway, good luck – enjoy. It might depend on which stories you choose (are they really stand alines?) as well as your working definition of the parts. I had a lit teacher tell us that a good short story had to be read 5 times to really “get it.” I doubt that will be necessary – one a month, eh? 🙂

    1. I am hoping that I won’t run into the definition problem, Becky precisely because I don’t (normally) use the terms beginning, middle and end. In fact I work with a model that is truly grammatical and therefore has specific markers within the grammar to indicate which section of the story we are in. Of course, one of the things I shall need to explore is whether or not the markers that hold true for a complete narrative also hold true for a short work.

  6. I like your post – it crystallised for me my problem with short stories. so often I come to the end and think – is that it? or what a let down and want more. My contribution to your short story collections is probably not too helpful – Agatha Christie wrote loads of short stories and there are numerous collections – some of her stories are so, so short. I think the best ones I’ve come across are probably Daphne du Maurier’s, some of them are excellent.

    1. They are both writers I shall look out for Margaret, but at the moment what I need are anthologies where I don’t have any say about what I read so that I am not screwing my results by the way in which I choose my material.

  7. Loved your thoughtful analysis! Maybe it is that many stories aren’t really stories that is at issue with why I don;t read them often. But then I don’t demand my novels have a distinct plot or beginning, middle or end but perhaps I don;t mind with novels because there is more room for all the other stuff to make them interesting. When I was reading Cather’s story collection recently I noticed one of the things that irritated me was just the fact that they were short. I finished one story and was immediately into the next without time to let the last one settle in. Maybe stories, even in collections, are only meant to be read one or two at a time and not all through like a novel? I will be an eager follower of your project because I want to know what you turn up!

    1. Your last point is one of the reasons why I don’t want to set myself more than one a week, Stefanie. I want time to really consider just the one piece. Of course, there is also the fact that I don’t want them taking up too much reading time either:-)

  8. This is one of the reasons I like linked short stories, because the volume as a whole has a beginning, middle, and end. Your post made me think of the story “Victory Over Japan,” which is the title story of an Ellen Gilchrist connection. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but the way it turns out is absolutely clear when you read the rest of the stories.

    1. That’s something I’ve been thinking about in relation to ‘Olive Kitteridge’, Jeanne. I have a long way to go before I can start to look at that type of collection but it will be there in my mind as I move forward.

  9. I’ll really look forward to this. It has given me food for thought – would short stories be more popular if they were more traditionally plotted (as novels tend to be) with beginning, middle and end, and therefore more satisfying?

    1. It’s an interesting question, isn’t Denise? And one that casts a particular light on us as readers as well. Are we not prepared to be that little bit more experimental in our tastes? Barbara Hardy once said that ‘narrative is a primary act of mind’ so perhaps we are hard wired to want a satisfactory conclusion.

  10. I love this idea! I look forward to following your progress. I read Barbash recently and he’s converted me to short stories. Before that I’d only really read Sherlock Holmes short stories and hated them.

  11. A fantastic project I love short stories though I haven’t always. I discovered I love a particular period of short stories and modern short stories often still leave me cold. The best stories can be powerful and memorable. Loved your post.

    1. Thank you Ali, I had fun writing it. I was fuming at the time because a friend of mine had just been told that her work was too populist in tone to be good academically. I wrote my PhD in the same tone as this post (foul pest and marauding foxes – it was ‘Jack and the Beanstalk) and was highly praised for making a difficult subject accessible. Why does something have to be difficult to read to have any merit?

  12. I’m more likely to read ‘genre’ than ‘literary’ short stories – crime, sci-fi and horror primarily. I’d argue that the vast majority of those have a quite distinct beginning, middle and end. The major differences to full-length would be in the depth of characterisation and perhaps complexity of plotting. Literary short stories on the other hand tend to leave me cold, very much for the fact that they can feel fragmentary rather than short.

    Good luck with the project!

    1. One of the things that I am going to have to decide FF is what variables I am going to take account of. Genre, gender, date, nationality, they are all likely to influence the narrative grammar. I may even decide to start with a collection that narrows down as many of those variables as possible to give me a controlling factor.

      1. I don’t know if it fits in with what you’re thinking but length is also so variable. I was recently blown away by a story of under 1000 words If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love . I couldn’t begin to analyse it’s structure really and even found it hard to put into a genre – it’s billed as sci-fi/fantasy but in my opinion isn’t – lit-fic perhaps or maybe even prose-poetry. But I did feel it told a more complete story and revealed more about the characters than many much longer stories. I often struggle to decide when a short story becomes a novelette, or when a novella becomes a novel…

        Haha! In short, good luck with your project!

        1. I hadn’t thought about length, FF. Gerald Prince once claimed that the shortest story could be told in four sentences but he wasn’t using the same criteria as I would have done. I shall certainly add this to my list of considerations.

  13. I feel the same as you about short stories, more or less — used to teach them but hardly ever read them. However, when I was teaching we made a great deal of ‘lack of closure’, said to be one of the high points of the short story. And I tend to agree. So I’m not bothered by what bothers you, but will look forward very much to your analyses!

    1. I’m not so bothered about lack of closure either when I have a specific story in front of me, Harriet and I certainly wouldn’t want to say that a piece of writing is any less because it lacked a conclusion. What I do think is that a piece like that demands more of the reader and that may account for why so many people avoid the form. The further into this that I look and the more I respond to people’s comments the more wide ranging the idea seems. There has to be something going on here to do with reader response and I’ve just found myself quoting Barbara Hardy. Maybe I’ve found a project to keep me going for the next decade or so 🙂

  14. What an excellent idea! I’d be interested to see what you find about short stories from different periods. I tend to think of incomplete stories as a more modern phenomenon, but I haven’t read enough to know if this true.

    1. Time period is just one of the variables that I shall have to explore, Karen. I think genre is probably an important factor as well. I could be at this for a very long time.

  15. This was fascinating for me. In all honesty I can’t comment beyond that as the only text I ever really study is the Form Guide in the Racing Post! From here on I can’t offer any suggestions or anything else beyond the fact that I’ll be really interested in what you find! Mind you, if you believe in fate and all that, given that you illustrated your thoughts using the story of the Three Little Pigs, perhaps I can offer something after all – there’s a horse running later today at Chester races – and it’s named ‘Related’!!!!! Worth a fiver to win I reckon just in case!!!!!

    1. Col, my father, who was a Yorkshireman, brought me up with a cricket bat in one hand and a racing form book in the other. I’m off to check the card NOW!

  16. Hello Alex! This is a great post, I love the way you analyse the Three Little Pigs. It’s a great project too, but an enormous field – across time, across genres, across countries – good luck to you!

    An anthology I read recently, including contributions from both American and European writers, was Interfictions, edited by Theodora Goss and Delia Sherman (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Interfictions-An-Anthology-Interstitial-Writing/dp/1931520240). The stories are all recent and the idea is that they explore the boundaries between genres; I enjoyed them very much and I recommend them. If you’re looking for a snapshot of the moment, there’s an annual publication called The Best American Short Stories [year] (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Best-American-Short-Stories-2014/dp/0547819226) and a British version, The Best British Short Stories, published by Salt (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1907773673/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_dp_ss_1?pf_rd_p=479289247&pf_rd_s=lpo-top-stripe&pf_rd_t=201&pf_rd_i=0547819226&pf_rd_m=A3P5ROKL5A1OLE&pf_rd_r=1627VKPYXKW7K3ERGF2C). I know the American one is highly regarded although I haven’t read this edition; I can’t vouch for the British one but Salt are good publishers. And Granta publish a lot of anthologies, some by nationality, which look good.

    I’m excited to read your posts!

    1. You’re right, Helen, it is a massive field but I’ve been looking for a project that would use my previous research but which would also be of interest to people reading the blog and I’m hoping that this might be it. Thanks for the suggestions.

  17. Wonderful post and idea! One modern anthology that’s been shamefully sitting on my shelf since it arrived last year is ‘Beacons’ – Stories for our not so distant future. (ed Gregory Norminton, Transword). Includes Joanne Harris, Liz Jensen, Toby Litt, AL Kennedy – all with an environmental theme. It sounds wonderful (I should read it pronto!)

  18. I think you’re generally right if you’re talking about “literary” short stories or what I call MFA fiction since so many MFA programs seem to produce so much of it. If you look more popular genres, science fiction, fantasy and mystery (I can’t speak for romance) you’ll find lots of traditional plot arcs going on. I also think MFA fiction produces a lot of novels without traditional plot arcs. You’ll have to decide if you’re looking at short stories as a genre or just at MFA stories.

    The best anthology of short stories I know of is Points of View which is probably still easy to find in used books stores for a dollar. It’s got a wonderful variety of stories by a good variety of authors. I think Steven Moffet was the editor.

    I’ll be interested to see what you come up with.

    1. Instinctively I think genre is going to be a major factor in this, but no good research relies on instinct alone. I’m fighting shy, however, of calling the short story a genre as I think it is more of a form.

  19. I will certainly be interested to read about the results of this! I teach short stories and I enjoy it, but I’m only moderately comfortable with applying traditional story structure, so I’ll be ready to learn from you. I loved your analysis of The Three Little Pigs!

    1. One of the first things I am going to be looking for, Rebecca, is whether or not I can apply the same form of grammatical analysis that I use with complete stories to the short story. If I can’t then the project may come unstuck before it ever gets off the ground 🙂

  20. What a fascinating idea for a project and one that so well draws on your interests and expertise. Now you have us all intrigued by your analytical methodology you’ll have to spill the beans about it … Your comment about the lack of conclusion/ denouement may be the reason I find short stories rather unsatisfying reads. I get to the end and think ” was that it”

    1. I’m a tagmemicist, Karen, but that won’t mean much to anyone on our side of the Atlantic as it is basically an American discipline. However, the fundamental characteristic is that it is a grammatical approach to narrative analysis rather than merely an instinctive one so I have to be able to justify my findings by means of reference to one of three grammatical hierarchies.

  21. I love your project! I, too, read fewer short stories than I’d like to. A short story doesn’t “feed” me in the way a novel does. Some years back, a group of us on AOL read the anthology “You’ve Got to Read This,” edited by the novelists Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard. I’ve also had good luck with “The Oxford Book of Short Stories,” ed. by Pritchett. (I used it for a calss.)
    This reminds me I really should read some of the short story collections I have around the house. I always have good intentions…

    1. I looked at the Pritchett, Kat but in the end decided to go with Byatt simply because I respect her as a scholar as well as a writer. I’ll have a look at the one you’ve mentioned as well, though because I hope I shall go far enough with this to need something to move on to.

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