The short story is a form that I have had a love-hate relationship with since I started writing seriously. It is a form that I comfortably work in—I “get” short story —but I think my general affinity for the form is part of the reason that I struggle with writing a novel. By the very nature of their respective lengths, approaching a short story takes a different mindset to approaching a novel.
But that’s a story for another time. It isn’t important to our purposes here today (I keep telling myself that because I like to live in denial).
What I want to talk about is a form that I was reminded of this past weekend and one that I work with here and there when I put my novel aside in frustration: the short story novel. See, over the weekend, I decided to watch Diamond Daydreams, an anime that I have not watched in quite a few years. And though it is visual, it has the same structure as a short story novel.
Rather than one specific narrative, Diamond Daydreams tells the individual stories of six different young women living in Hokkaido who have each reached a crossroads in their respective lives, one which their decisions will affect the way the rest of their lives play out. Each story gets two episodes (short stories) to play out, and they are only tangentially related to one another. However, when put together, they all tell an overall story of life in Hokkaido (novel). In other words, a larger story is told through the telling of shorter ones.
I was first introduced to the short story novel a few years ago when I read Seedfolks, by Paul Fleishman. Seedfolks is the story of a neighborhood in one of the rougher parts of Cleveland, OH coming together around the development of an empty lot into a community garden. Each story is only a couple pages long, and are from the point-of-view of a completely different character. Each character has his or her own issues, but in solving them, s/he ends up adding to the garden growing beneath their windows. But like Diamond Daydreams, a bigger story (the multi-ethnic community coming together) is told through a number of smaller ones (each person has a life issue that needs solving).
I then went on to read Winesburg, OH by Sherwood Anderson and Whitechurch by Chris Lynch, which both utilized the form well, too. In the case of Whitechurch, each story was from the perspective of the same character, but like the rest, we learn about the town of Whitechurch and about the life of our three main characters (Oakley, Pauley, and Lilly) through these smaller stories. So the form is the same even if the approach is a bit different.
I think it’s easy to look at a short story as a form that doesn’t need the sort of preparation that a novel needs. But the reality is that the world of a short story needs to be just as real as the world of a novel, otherwise nobody will accept the validity of the story. And if a reader doesn’t accept the validity of your story, your story has failed.
Often, a short story is just a smaller part of a larger one—we are given just enough to be able to perceive the parts we are missing. What a novel like Whitechurch or an anime like Diamond Daydreams does is show us how much is often going on in the periphery of the story we are focusing on. While Karin (Diamond Daydreams) is struggling with the fear of surgery, Kyoko is dealing with the pressure of being a promising, young filmmaker while trying to find the magic again. While Lilly is doing everything she can to escape Whitechurch and make something of her life, Oakley is stuck digging himself deeper in his dead-end hometown.
What’s important when we sit down to write a short story is that we understand everything that is going on around our characters and how much potential there is in just those few pages. Everybody has a story to tell, even that random, unassuming guy in the back of coffee shop sipping his coffee and reading the paper. If he’s important enough to be noticed, then he has a story to tell. Whether you tell that story or not is unimportant—what’s important is that you understand that he is just as real as the protagonist we are spending six thousand words with. And who knows, if you do decide to explore that unassuming guy in the back of the coffee shop, you might just find a novel.