As of late, I’ve become fascinated by long stories told in short formats — feature-worthy progressions captured in a short film, short stories that contain an arc as complex as a novel, novels that follow the development of a whole web of plots.
Isaac Babel was my introduction to this concept in literature. He’s a master of short stories. He uses juxtaposition, seamless transitions, complex and gritty ideas, and incredibly strong words to get the (often complex) points of his stories across. In a three-page short story (his collection Red Cavalry Stories — about his time in the Russian army — was my introduction) he can encapsulate an entire character arc, the subtleties of communication and relationship between characters, the general horrors of war, the emotional impact of death, the wonder of physiology, the depression of poverty,and a strong sense of place — all in a single narrative. What you don’t understand in hard facts is made up for by what you understand in atmosphere and intangible feeling.
Tim Mattia translated the concept for me over to film. I wrote a blog post about his work last month, which you can find here.
There’s a movement of songwriters that create in adherence to this idea, too, categorized less by genre and more by song structure. Jeffrey Foucault comes to mind right away, as do some of the songs of Jason Isbell — both are masters at capturing an entire worldview, flavor, story and voice in a three-minute song.
All of these artists have one thing in common: they capture the essence of a long-form story in a short work. Arguably, they do it more poignantly than some long-form storytellers do.
It’s a distinctive style, and, when done right, it’s incredibly powerful.
Tell it Fast
When you tell it fast, you maintain the immediacy of idea that gets lost in a longer story progression. In a 700-page novel, you have a lot of room for elaboration of concepts, but the beginning is fuzzy in the reader’s mind by the time you get to the end. In a short-form presentation, the beginning and the ending aren’t so far removed, which allows you to compare one from the other, and the differences between the two — which is part of what storytelling is all about: how the beginning differs from the end, and what’s happened to bring about this change between the two.
When you tell it fast, it also hits you harder; ideas are more poignant, more vivid, more visceral. There’s less processing and filtering going on. In some ways, the rush of sensory detail is more in line with our real-life perception of reality.
Shots are being fired by the storyteller, and they’re coming at you faster than you can react. You’re naked and defenseless in the face of them. The harder they hits you, and the realer they feels, the more immediate your experience of the story is going to be.
Detail-heavy in content but stripped-down in prose, this storytelling style hits me deep — which is why I’m obsessed with it.
Less is More
One sentence is all it takes to capture a thought. Rather than elaborating, take time to find the one sentence that hits the raw nerve of all you want to say. This concept applies to a single line in a song or a single shot in a film, too.
One metaphor or descriptor is often all it takes to paint a vivid picture of something. Rather than heaping on adjectives, take time to find the right one.
You’ll know when you’ve found it. The right word brings strong images to mind, and it resonates as being true. It doesn’t leave room for doubt.
Use Sharp Contrast to Capture Things You Don’t Want to Waste Time Saying
Isaac Babel is a master at this. He often places juxtaposing ideas side-by-side, highlighting the disparity between the two by their relationship with one another. He’ll talk about the way the sky looks over a wheat field (peaceful imagery) and in the next sentence talk about the way a body looks lying in the field in its own blood with its appendages mangled (as horrific a picture as you can create). The progression is logical. The juxtaposition between the two carries a whole mess of ideas that you don’t have to waste time trying to articulate — they’re implied in the space created between the images. You can’t NOT think them.
When you waste time being poetic and overstating things, you lose the potency of the things you’re trying to articulate.
Show, Don’t Tell
This maxim is used by writing teachers until it’s worn thin, but that’s only because it can’t be stated enough. Telling is using logic to explain something. Showing makes the reader feel.
Telling: “He couldn’t sleep. He was too caught up in being afraid.”
Showing: “He stared at the shadow-swathed ceiling of the tent. The rhythm of his heart counted time, and the sound of his breathing was hollow; turned into the sound of wolves, breathing hard as they ran through the cold dark. He could feel their presence outside the tent, hovering until he couldn’t close his eyes; made his breath come harder and faster, which made their panting come harder and faster, too. He could feel their need, the visceral tugging in their core, driving them onward. They came for him like crows come for carrion, circling; stealing flesh from bones, and sleep from the night.”
When working in this form, the point can’t be stressed enough: make. me. feel.
At the Same Time, Tell Me Everything
Don’t sacrifice content just because you’re cutting length. I want to know the whole story, in all of its intricacy and detail — because the detail is what makes it fascinating, and real.
It only takes one sentence, or one quick cut of film, to touch on a subject enough to give me the story. Our minds are good at inferring details where none have been given. They’ll flesh out the rest.
Give me the whole plot. Give me the whole progression. Touch on the backstory. Explain the whys. Add some subtleties. Flesh the whole thing out as much as possible.
Aspire to Be a Master
There’s always more to be learned from the best. Study, always.
Let’s take a look at this paragraph from Isaac Babel:
“… and I moved along the walls where nymphs with gouged eyes danced their ancient round dance. Then on the trampled floor, in a corner, I found the torn fragment of a yellowed letter. On it was written in faded ink:
Berestechko, 1820, Paul, mon bien aime, on dit que Vempereur Napoleon est mort, est-ce vrai? My beloved Paul, I hear that the Emperor Napoleon is dead. Is it true? I feel well; it was an easy birth, our little hero is already seven weeks old.” — Isaac Babel, Berestechko
There isn’t any elaboration on this paragraph in the short story it came from, either before or after. In passing, as part of a larger narrative, the main character finds this fragment of a letter and picks it up, reads it, discards it, and moves on. Yet, there’s a whole story contained here, told more in the form of questions than of answers.
Who is Paul? Who is this woman who bore his baby? What’s the story of their child, the “little hero” — what is he going to become? Why is the woman writing to Paul, and why isn’t he with her? What happened to the Emperor Napoleon? Why is the letter torn and abandoned? Where is Paul now? Where is the woman?
There’s pride and joy and sorrow and missing and loss all wrapped up in these lines; a juxtaposition between birth and death; a whole web of untold stories, touched upon and then let go. We get just enough to feel like we understand. The empty, aching, lonely feelings these sentences leave behind adds to the tone of the whole story.
Babel’s work is a whole string of these short story glimpses, told with brilliant precision and assembled in a logical form that makes sense as a larger arc, all centering around his narrator figure and his interactions with the world. It’s golden.
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” — Jack Kerouac