It is the simple things that are the most mysterious.
"Do you know if what you are writing is going to be a short story or a novel?" This is one of the questions writers get asked all the time. The answer is "Yes," because the writer also thinks in shapes. But it is foolish asking a writer how much they know, when they spend so much time trying not to know it.
This is what the American writer Flannery O'Connor did not know about her iconic story "Good Country People": "When I started writing that story, I didn't know there was going to be a PhD with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realised it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn't know he was going to steal that wooden leg until 10 or 12 lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realised it was inevitable."
She does not say when she knew she was writing a short story, as opposed to the first chapter of a novel – or a radio play, or the rough draft of an epic poem – at a guess, it was quite early on. The writer's ignorance may be deliberate, but it plays itself out in an established space. The sentence is one such space; the story is another. In both cases, form and surprise are the same thing, and the pleasures of inevitability are also the pleasures of shape.
This is not an argument for a lyrical as opposed to a social theory of the short story: characters are part of it too; the way people do unexpected things, even if you have invented them yourself. The short story delivers what O'Connor calls "the experience of meaning"; the surprise that comes when things make sense.
Much of what is said about the short story as a form is actually anxiety about the novel – so it is worth saying that we do not know how the novel delivers meaning, but we have some idea of how the short story might. There is something irreducible about it: "A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way," says O'Connor, "and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is." The novel, on the other hand, is not finished by its own meaning, which is why it must grow a structure or impose one; making the move from story to plot.
Read the full piece at The Guardian.