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!