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Short Stories - Making It Real

Many readers find their pleasure comes from curling up by a warm fire with a mug of hot chocolate or cider and a huge book: a lengthy drama that covers the entire history of the main character's life, complete with chapter-length descriptions of landscapes, giant paragraphs of dialogue between the protagonist and his nemesis (whom he will later destroy brutally, of course), and long, drawn out first-love arcs that border on the melodramatic and keep the pages turning.

While some of the greatest classics such as "The Count of Monte Cristo," "Jane Eyre," "A Tale of Two Cities," and "Gone with the Wind" feature these and other literary conventions, readers must confess at some point that they must often suspend belief that this is how life actually works. Do governesses really fall in love with the man who locks away a crazy wife in his attic? Are criminal low-lifes actually allowed to get away with a killing spree and then make millions of dollars? Is it possible that every person you've ever known can all miraculously end up in the same place at one time in order to save the day? It's these and other obvious conveniences that novel-readers have to suppress while enjoying their favorite tome. No, that kind of stuff just doesn't happen.

In an oft neglected genre, however, the stuff of real life - family arguments, lives of crime, wardrobe mishaps, farming accidents, marriage proposals, illness and death - all this can become vividly real. Short story authors are never nearly as famous or popular as novelists, and this is tragic. Unless they've been dead at least 100 years or so, these talented writers simply won't become famous unless they suddenly pen a novel.

But the truth is, there’s a lot more to be had by reading short stories than readers actually admit. It's more impressive, after all, to be able to say you read "War and Peace" rather than E.A. Poe's short stories. It just has more weight.

This is unfortunate. Short story writers are among the most talented writers of the field, and for good reason. Their biggest asset? They know how to condense. They only have your attention for 3-8 pages and they've got to make it good, a solid story that makes you feel like you've just finished an entire novel. They have to make you care, and quick.

Some of the best stories that the English language can claim come in the form of short stories. "The Tell-Tale Heart," one of America's first horror stories, is on practically every English professor's syllabus at practically every college in America. "The Yellow Wall-paper," written by a leading feminist writer of the 19th century, reveals psychological processes of women that men had never contemplated before. Civil War stories made their mark in America's hearts with "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "Chickamagua," and "A Horseman in the Sky" by the cynical veteran Ambrose Bierce. Short stories bring the realness of life to the forefront of our minds, focusing our attention on the little details and the intricacies of a look, a word, a feeling. Unlike novels, short stories often deal with the psychological musings of the protagonist caught in the action or the conflict, make you wonder why the rival is behaving a certain way, and force you to reckon with a sudden, unexplained ending that mimics life as the common person experiences it. Short stories take all the glamour out of life and make you listen to the truth that you know is real.

So next time you need a good story, overlook Dickens' or Faulkner's or Hemmingway's longer works and pick up some of their shorter ones. You'll be amazed at how clearly you understand what the authors have been trying to tell you all along.

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