Home » Writing » “Why are your songs so short?” a bird was once asked. “Is it because you are short of breath?”

“Why are your songs so short?” a bird was once asked. “Is it because you are short of breath?”

“Why are your songs so short?” a bird was once asked. “Is it because you are short of breath?”

 The bird shook its head. ‘Of course not’.

‘It is because I have many songs,’ the bird replied, ‘and I would like to sing them all.”

Thirty years on I still haven’t been able to satisfy my prep school teacher’s wish that his class of 11 year old boys, maybe 12 of us, could write a short story in under a hundred words. On the other hand, was it 500 hundred words?

Mr Aldridge inspired me, he had a beard like a Stuart King, lanky, an English M.A, from Cambridge with a wife so young, so more a sister than a mother figure that I can still see her – slim, thin long hair, a hippy with an M.A. or a doctorate. (I think he returned to Cambridge to lecture after a few years with us.). Clever man. Her ridiculed the headlines of the tabloid papers long before they were ridiculed on T.V. twenty years later. He was right to want to teach us about the preposterous stances taken by the tabloid press in England.

 October 2004, thirty years since I was at Mowden Hall Preparatory School,

Northumberland, then an elitist, expensive, privileged school for 115 boys ages 8 to 13. Thirty years on, with all I have written, the millions of words in diaries, the millions of attempted stories, the short films the dead screenplays, the abandoned novels. Millions of words later as I struggle with the fifth draft of a novel that I thought I finished two months ago I come across an essay by William Boyd in the Saturday Guardian title ‘Brief Encounters.’ He offers no financial hope for ‘new’ writers hoping to earn anything from a short story, but her sets out a categorisation of short stories that interests me because I have made up stories that can be as short as their title, but have yet to get beyond the 60,000 word mark.

1.            The Event-plot story

2.            The Chekhovian story

3.            The ‘Modernist’ story

4.            The Cryptic/ludic story

5.            The Mini-novel story

6.            The Poetic/mythic story

7.            The Biographical story

The Event-plot Story

This is the kind of thing my English teacher from Mowden Hall talked about. He wanted a story of 50 words or 100 that had a plot; there was a narrative shape, a beginning, a middle and an end. The stereotype of the event-plot story is the ‘twist-in-the-tail,’ a style that supposedly becomes dated, despite the televisual expressions of Roald Dahl’s ‘Tales of the Unexpected.’ My own short films (mostly scripts) have been of this genre. ‘Listening in was broadcast by the UK’s Channel 4 in 1998, then again on the night they launched ‘Film 4.’

The Chekhovian Story

Chekhov I am told (I wouldn’t know, this is one of the subjects in which I got a ‘B’Grade in High School so I didn’t go on to study at Oxford).

Chekhov, I understand, made ‘the plot his stories like the plot of our lives: random, mysterious, run-of-the-mill, abrupt, chaotic, fiercely cruel, and meaningless.’ Chekhov, William Boyd claims, ‘liberated Joyce’s imagination’ and thus enabled Dubliners. Can I agree? I’d better read ‘Dubliners’ first. (I’m still struggling with Ulysses).

‘The Chekhovian point of view,’ to take Boyd’s p.o.v is ‘to look at life in all its banality and all its tragic comedy and to refuse to make a judgment.’ (Note ‘judg’ not ‘judge’ – there is a way to spell a word correctly, not as you wish it to be.) I’ve become a pedant on this having made a study of the history of the English Language; the only ‘nation’ to wade in and change the spelling of words for convenience’s sake were the Americans. Colour, Labour, Center and all the rest of them should be spelt as they were spelt historically. Any changes should have occurred, and could be permitted occurred ‘democratically’, by the weight of common use, instead some jumped up post-revolutionary Englishman who found himself on the other side of the Atlantic decided to chop and change the language as he saw fit. Have nothing of it. If you are reading this and you are American then please, go back to the roots which are both yours and mine and ignore the anomaly that occurred when ‘corrective procedures’ were taken, like an amateur plastic surgeon having a go at a face to remove a wart or fix a broken nose.

Where was I?

The Chekhovian story. ‘Humanity speaking for itself? Without manipulation.’ If this means something to you please elaborate. ‘Neither condemn, nor celebrate’??? I am supposed to get the same from reading Katherine Mansfield, William Trevor, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, Muriel Spark and Alice Munro. Can I be arsed? I prefer to write than to read, to paint than to view, to sing and compose songs than listen to music, to perform rather than watch TV or theatre.

The ‘Modernist’ story

Ernest Hemingway I am told. Stories that are deliberately obscure and difficult. What would I know? I find him too obscure or difficult to read? His style is, I am told, ‘pared down, laconic, unafraid to repeat the most common adjectives rather than use a synonym (lazy wanker). ‘It is the inaccessibility of the subtext that makes the story so memorable.’ So what of ghanima, what of e /

This style is tolerable in a short story; I am told, though not in a novel.

The Cryptic/ludic story

Here we have Borges and Nabakov, half novel, half short story … trying to achieve in a few dozen pages what the novel achieves in a few hundred. Rudyard Kipling was supposed to be good at this kind of thing. I suggest he couldn’t help himself, rather like a painter can’t help their style after a while, their ‘style’ becoming gradually more distinguishable in the ‘short story’ form of a single painting than the write might achieve having been confined to a single contemporary language.

The mini-novel story

Boyd says, we should put the Chekhov story ‘My Life’ in this category. So why isn’t a story written by Chekhov in the ‘Chekhovian’ category? Must I make a tutorial of this? By its nature, shouldn’t an essay I read in a weekend paper be read, wiped on my arse then binned?

The poetic/mythic story

Hemingway supposedly wrote this kind of thing, as did Dylan Thomas, J G Ballard and D H Lawrence. Poets edge in here to, with the likes of Ted Hughes and Frank O’Hara.

‘This is the short story quasi poem and it can range from stream-of-consciousness to the impenetrably gnomic.’

The biographical story

This is fiction disguising itself as reportage and non-fiction. Bung in footnotes and biographical details. Build the model railway set; obsess about the detail, kid people, somehow. For me, this is what it is about, kidding your readers. ‘Fiction conceived within the bounds of observable fact.’

It is an opportunity to vary form, tone narrative and style quickly and dramatically.

Essential Short Stories

  • ‘Spring at Fialta’ Vladimir Nabokov
  • ‘My Dream of Flying to Wake Island’ J G Ballard
  • ‘Funes, the Memorious’ J L Borges
  • ‘Prelude’ Katherine Mansfield
  • ‘The Dead’ James Joyce
  • ‘Mrs Bathhurst’ Rudyard Kipling
  • ‘Day of the Dying Rabbit’ John Updike
  • ‘In the Ravine’ Anton Chekhov
  • ‘Bang-Bang You’re Dead’ Muriel Spark
  • ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ Ernest Hemingway




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