This is no. 110 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
There is a particular curse in the fiction-writing world: If you like writing long short stories, you’re pretty much sunk. I’ve seen the sparkle in the eye of a fellow writer when they describe the story they’re writing and how much they love it, how it might be the best thing they’ve ever written. Then comes the sigh. “It’s twelve thousand words so no one’s ever going to read it but me,” is what usually follows.
Long short stories are the gawky, awkward sister at the dance. They are too long for your average literary magazine, too short to be novellas, and so, impossible to publish. Good luck finding a home for your ten-thousand-word gem, when most literary magazines limit submissions to six or seven thousand words—and even those have to be truly extraordinary to justify how many pages they would take up in a new issue.
But long short stories truly are gems. They might be my favorite thing to read, and one of my favorite things to write. What could be better than settling into a chair for a deep dive into a life revealed in a fifty-page Alice Munro story?
I am here to say that if a story demands its form, and it usually does, then there is simply no way to compress an eight-thousand-word story down to two thousand five hundred words. It cannot be done without sacrificing meaning, atmosphere, and character, and we don’t expect this kind of compression when we write novels. A slow dance, seen in fast-forward, loses its magic and appears ridiculous.
Like any good short story, the long short starts with a hook—an invitation to the narrative with power, problem, and mystery. We might get a quick view of a character or conflict, but more often than not, long shorts immerse us in a world the way a novel might. Perhaps the author chooses to write from the popular “we” perspective: The reader is introduced to a group of people and learns about their collective identity and their shared routines. Or this story might have a lot of explaining to do: There are events in the family history that must be shared for the primary conflict to be understood. In Munro’s “The Love of a Good Woman” three boys discover a car submerged in a lake with a body inside it. We think this will be the central conflict of the story. In fact it’s a skillful obfuscation; this is not the story Munro wants to tell, though it will return and play its part by the end. The story is going to be about events decades later, about people still nursing old wounds and carrying onerous secrets. But we need that unhurried scene-setting, that arresting set-piece of the car in the lake, to understand the nature of the secrets kept in this small town. We need the slow, steady unfurling.
Consider too “The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed” by Edward P. Jones, in which we discover right in the title where this story is headed. It’s a bold move to spoil the ending when we can flip ahead and see page after page of another character’s night out around the city, and only a glancing interaction with Rhonda at the beginning. But that’s the magic of the long short: We are here for the night, open to where it takes us, the unexpected car breakdowns and flirtations with the guys who help the protagonist get going again; the ins and outs of rundown apartments and the interactions with people from all corners of the neighborhood. And when the murder finally happens, it arrives as a shock. We spent so much time traveling around with these characters that we forgot the cold promise in the story’s title.
If your story feels like a richly textured fabric with many folds, you might be writing a long short. It is worth it to shake out the folds: Let us see the intricate patterns and promises made and kept and broken from beginning to end. In a good long short, a character starts in one stage of life or frame of thought, and ends somewhere else entirely, while still showing echoes of their original, fundamental self. We are permitted to see the ways that people grow and learn and make choices and make mistakes and muddle along anyway toward some semblance of grace. A good long short allows episodic discoveries without numbing endlessness; there is no repetition, but deeper and deeper pools of resonance, new layers added to a life. In an airless, abridged version of the same story, we might show one facet of a character without having succeeded in capturing a life on the page. Most people have lived different chapters of their lives, and been different people, and the long short allows for that sort of exploration.
So write your long short and worry a little less about where it will find a home. Stories have a way of finding their readers if the writer is persistent enough. Be patient; play the long game. You’re good at that already.
Blair Hurley is the author of The Devoted (Norton, 2018), which was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Her writing can also be found in Electric Literature, the Georgia Review, Guernica, Ninth Letter, the Paris Review Daily, and West Branch, among other publications. The recipient of a 2018 Pushcart Prize, she received her BA from Princeton University and her MFA from New York University.Thumbnail: Alexander Popov