Reprint: The Art of the Short Story by Vance Palmer

Good short stories are rare, because the short story demands practically all the literary qualities. In particular it calls for a very high development of the narrative faculty. A fairly good novel can be written with very little exercise of this faculty, for example, Galsworthy's "Country House" or Bennett's "Clayhanger." A character is caught in some attitude, say, kneeling at prayer or adding up figures in a ledger, and by an exhaustive catalogue of his thoughts and surroundings a vivid representation is achieved. In the next chapter he is caught in another attitude, and so on.

The short story, however, can never be static; it must be dynamic. It demands that different scenes and events be fused together in a swift flow of narrative, and that there be a unity as definite as that of a good lyric. The difference between the novel and the short story can best be illustrated by the image of a house. A novel can explore the inner rooms and the inhabitants' history at its leisure. A short story, however, must place the reader outside, raise the blind of one room for a moment and then lower it. Obviously the important thing is that the blind should be raised at the right moment, when the revealing incident is taking place.

There is no better way of learning how to write a short story than studying the best models. A few can be hinted at: Tolstoy's "The Duchess," Kipling's "The Man Who Would be King," Maupassant's "Boule de Suif," Lawson's "Telling Mrs. Baker," Gorky's "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl," Ambrose Bierce's "The Affair at Coulter's Ridge."

First published in Birth, March 1917.

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