I usually get asked this question when I’m teaching creative writing classes. It’s usually How long is a short story? And the general answer is that it’s as long as a piece of string. All very unsatisfactory when you’re trying to learn something.
I have thought about this and now have another answer, probably equally unsatisfying. It’s something I’ve learned slowly over the years and this answer will certainly come as no surprise to writers of fiction. A story is longer (bigger, wider, deeper) than the words on the page. I used to think this only worked for short stories so I drew a diagram of an iceberg in true primary school style with the tip above the water the rest below. But I now realise that this works for any story. A novel stretches out before the beginning of the book and goes on after it is finished. If you’ve engaged your audience they should wonder what happens to the characters (as I did, with rage, when I reached the end of THE LORD OF THE FLIES). This was the very reason that I wrote the sequel to Looking for JJ, FINDING JENNIFER JONES. People kept asking me what happened next. Now people ask me what happens after the end of FINDING JENNIFER JONES. I don’t know. It’s up to them to decide.
A short story does this beautifully. A snapshot of a moment in time; it spreads out further, deeper, wider into the past and into the future. I’m enjoying the fashion for really short stories. Here I’ve written a 100 word crime short story.
A Bit of Education
There was blood on the hammer. Dexy wiped it off.
The old man lay face down on the kitchen floor. On the table was a set of exercise books. Must do better. Must work harder. Dexy remembered his book from years before. It curled at the corners and was full of angry red writing. When he opened it the words seem to shout out at him.
This time he had been the one to do the shouting. He tore off a sheet of paper and wrote A* on it. He placed it on the teacher’s head. Then he left.
Hopefully the story it tells is longer than the words on the page.