This video of the superb George Saunders on The Colbert Report shows the author dealing beautifully with the most annoying question you can ask someone who writes short fiction, “Why do you write short stories?” instead of huge novels.
Saunders’ response in which he compares the telling of a short story to the urgency of a declaration of love made at a train station in the three minutes before the train leaves really works for me. It’s all about cramming a short stretch with the maximum emotional impact. And he also mentions the other thing I love about the short story, the fact it can leave the reader with a question and that’s okay.
But as good as Saunders’ response is, Colbert, during his good natured ribbing of his guest, actually hits on the best analogy I have heard for the short story. He jokingly suggests that Saunders ‘take a short story and carve it onto the head of a bullet and just fire it into my skull.’ That is exactly how short stories work. They are small, they possess velocity and (when they work) they impact inside the reader. All my favourite short storyists do this, fire bullets of emotion directly into my head.
Here’s a few examples of stories that have done this for me:
and while we’re on the subject of bullets and heads:
It’s this attempt to write something that will explode inside the reader that keeps me coming back to the short form.
How would you describe the power of the short story? And what stories have hit you like a bullet?