by Jamira Richardson
“I love the short story form. To me, it’s just a delight to work in because it’s so malleable and you can work with it until you get it right.” –Kirk Wilson
For writers who struggle with brevity, there is no greater burden than the prospect of crafting a story within a few thousand words. For the panelists of the Writers’ League’s 2023 March Third Thursday, however, there is no greater freedom. While novels tend to become “unwieldy” and “monstrous” over time, according to panelist Kirk Wilson, short stories are malleable in their ability to be shaped—and reshaped—in countless ways. In reference to this malleability, Wilson shared the following quote from renowned short story writer Kelly Link: “The novel hardens as you go on. At a certain point the ambitions, even the shape, begin to feel inevitable. The short story stays fluid.”
This fluidity remained a prevalent theme throughout the conversation between Wilson and fellow panelist Chaitali Sen. For both panelists, this fluidity manifests in the ability to draft a short story without structure in mind—unlike novelists, who often turn to outlines in an attempt to tame the unruly length of a novel. As Wilson put it, “I just start writing the story and the structure builds around it.” Sen, on the other hand, builds structure over a “long, arduous process” of crafting the story “sentence by sentence” with a series of questions in mind. At the heart of this process lies the questions, “What is the problem that the character is facing? Am I framing this problem correctly?”
Despite their differing approaches to crafting short fiction, both panelists agreed that language is the foundation of every successful short story. With far less space for immersive worldbuilding and dynamic character arcs than novels, short stories often rely on language to draw in readers. In Wilson’s words, “Whether your story is straightforward or lyrical, it really doesn’t matter. The play of language can do as much to hold and involve the reader as the plot.” When asked to reflect on the role of language in their own short stories, Sen discussed how she builds context from the very first paragraph to immerse readers into the story as quickly as possible, while Wilson described how he tinkers with the “rhythm and music of each line” to create meaning that builds throughout the story.
While short stories provide the perfect outlet for experimentation in form and language, they still require believable worldbuilding. To accomplish this in such a compressed space, Sen advised writers to ask themselves, “What is the information that the reader needs to get started?” and weave that information into the story early on. Inspired by “The Art of Staging,” a chapter from The Art of Subtext (Graywolf Press, 2007), she also recommended using the “movement of characters through the story” to drive worldbuilding. In contrast, Wilson cautioned against explicit descriptions of character and setting. Instead, he suggested trusting readers enough to build a world using their imagination, leaving “open spaces” for them to make “intuitive leaps” about the characters and the world they live in.
In addition to their insights on worldbuilding, each panelist shared a tip for conquering one of the most difficult elements of storytelling—endings. To create an ending that cultivates emotional resonance, Sen recommended tracing the emotional arc of the protagonist over the course of the story and encapsulating that arc within the final paragraph. “If it’s a happy ending, let us feel some joy at the end,” she said. “If things are unresolved, let them be unresolved, but there should be a moment of discomfort there.” To create an ending that leaves a lingering impact on the reader, Wilson prefers an open ending that does not come to a “full stop,” one that encourages the reader to believe the story is still going on long after its conclusion. For writers who struggle with crafting the perfect ending, he suggested writing until the story feels complete and then striking the last line.
For writers who struggle with brevity, there is no task more daunting than tackling the short story form. However, as our Third Thursday panelists can attest, this form brims with opportunities to explore language and form in new and exciting ways, encouraging us to push beyond the limits we often impose on ourselves as writers. In a sense, it also encourages us to return to our literary roots, as Sen so aptly pointed out at the opening of our panel discussion: “The funny thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how people talk about not really reading short stories, yet short fiction is how many of us come into literacy.”
Please join us on April 20th for our next Third Thursday discussion, “Bringing the Past to Life: Writing Historical Fiction and Nonfiction” with Sarah Bird, Kate Winkler Dawson, and David Wright Faladé.
Kirk Wilson’s recommended short story collections:
The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Liberation Day by George Saunders
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
Birds of America: Stories by Lorrie Moore
Chaitali Sen’s recommended short story collections:
Cowboys and East Indians by Nina McConigley
The Ocean of Mrs. Nagai by Sharbari Zohra Ahmed
Seeking Fortune Elsewhere by Sindya Bhanoo
About our panelists:
Chaitali Sen is the author of the novel The Pathless Sky (Europa Editions, 2015) and short stories and essays which have appeared in Boulevard, Colorado Review, Ecotone, LitHub, Los Angeles Review of Books, New England Review, Shenandoah, and other publications. Her story collection A New Race of Men from Heaven (Sarabande Books, 2023) was selected by Danielle Evans as the winner of the 2021 Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction. The Pathless Sky was a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Best First Fiction and included on Idra Novey’s Buzzfeed list, “10 Books That Challenge Our Political Landscape by Inventing New Ones,” Library Journal’s “Top Fall Indie Fiction,” and Mic.com’s “25 Essential Reads to Make Women’s History Last Longer than a Month.” She holds an MFA in Fiction from Hunter College and lives in Central Texas.
Kirk Wilson’s books include the story collection Out of Season, the poetry collection Songbox, the poetry chapbook The Early Word, and Unsolved, a nonfiction crime study published in six editions in the US and UK. Kirk’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry are widely published in literary journals and anthologies. His awards include an NEA Fellowship, the Elixir Press Fiction Award, the Trio House Press Trio Award, Editor’s Awards and other prizes in all three genres, and two Pushcart nominations. Kirk’s website is www.KirkWilsonBooks.com.