Short Stories: They’re Just Like Life

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Editor's Note:

Siobhan Fallon is the author of You Know When the Men Are Gone, which won the PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction, the Indies Choice Honor Award, and the Texas Institute of Letters Award for First Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, Military Spouse, The Huffington Post, and NPR’s Morning Edition, among others. She joins Signature to speak about the importance of writing short stories.

There is incredible potential within a short story, and I think a story collection offers almost infinite leeway with plot and scope, length and style. I turned to this form when I was writing my first book, You know When the Men Are Gone, because I wanted to move freely from one very different world to another: from soldiers at their Forward Operating Base in Iraq, to the spouses at home in Fort Hood, Texas; from military base apartments to a dirty basement lair in an off-post neighborhood. The nature of a short story, as a concentrated burst of time and action within a rather small window, and the ability to completely change gears and showcase a new issue in each separate tale, seemed most apt for the book I was trying to write at the time.

In a collection, stories are arranged next to each other, not quite touching, almost acting like neighbors. This reminds me of life on an army base, where everyone is loosely connected, all of us either family members or active duty military. But we don’t necessarily know each other intimately, although we might pass each other in the aisles of the Commissary grocery store or see each others’ children at the base playgrounds. The stories of You Know When the Men Are Gone are similarly linked, with some characters colliding while others only intersect occasionally. I also appreciate the very deliberate pause between each story, how it can imply a time jump or geographical change. This abruptness is also true to military life, that episodic quality of being at home with your wife and children one moment, and then being deployed to Iraq the next. A collection can capture those unexpected arrivals and departures, all those gaps and uncertainties, the quirky marital misunderstandings and the explosive insurgent firefights.

I just finished writing a novel, The Confusion of Languages. This book started out as a short story, then grew into a collection of interconnected stories. But over time it settled into a traditional novel following the lives of two characters in Amman, Jordan, over a period of five months. As I wrote and rewrote, I realized I needed more than a short story’s allotment of pages to figure out each of my main characters. I also found that while my short stories don’t always tie up neatly (sometimes I like to leave an ending a little ambiguous in an attempt to let the reader’s imagination play a role), I felt like my novel demanded a clear start and finish. If I was asking the reader to trace the lives of characters for such a long span of time (and pages), then there were certain expectations I was determined to meet. In my mind, it’s a bold and intricate map I had to draw and color in – something with road signs and architecture, Technicolor mountains and deserts, busy highways and empty roads, all twisting and turning into a climax and denouement. But a short story, as a form, feels more forgiving, more a sketch, a glimpse, a held breath.

So while there are many fantastic reasons to write and read novels (I sure as hell hope so since I’ve just spent the last six years doing just that), I tend to think short stories more closely mirror life, the mess of it, the sharp edges, the unanswered questions. A novel strings time together, creates a trajectory that characters must take from A to B. But a story, in its short, crystalline form, focuses and captures the essence of a specific moment, whether it’s one of breathtaking beauty or heart-cracking grief, and tries to singe it into the mind of the reader forever.

Want more on Short Stories? Check out Signature’s Compact Guide to Short Story Writing.