The Short Review

shining the spotlight on short story collections

What does the word "story" mean to you?

In honour of National Short Story Month over at the Emerging Writers Network (and just because we love short stories) , I thought I’d bring you a selection of the responses by authors The Short Review interviewed to the question “What does the word ‘story’ mean to you?”.

Quite a few said it was a very difficult question. For some it means nothing, for others it is life itself.

The order is purely alphabetical, I’ve got as far as the Bs. There will be more! Click on the names to read the full author interviews. Here goes:

Warren Adler
To me story is fundamental and defines us as human beings. What happens next is the heart of the story and the pattern of all life which is a beginning, a middle and and an end. It is also the great mystery since no human being can ever know “what happens next.

Niki Aguirre
So many things, but due to my upbringing, I prefer those that are rich in the oral storytelling tradition. The best ones are the ones you get lost in: multilayered, babbling and chaotic, not necessary neat and linear. If you think about it, when you are sitting in a café or a pub telling a story, it seldom goes from point to point: the little asides are the best parts. Stories are often desperate things, dying to be voiced and heard — nothing calm and organised about that. Although I admire people who can write succinctly and in an orderly fashion while still maintaining a good level of excitement. That’s something to strive for.

Allison Amend
This question is no softball. Stumped, I just did what I used to do when I was stumped in college, which is look up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary. It was no help, so I’m on my own. To me, a story is the relation of a brief, epiphanal (or at least very important and pivotal) moment in a character’s life. And the stuff you need around that to understand why the moment is so important. That’s in the literature sense. In a more general sense, a story is a narrative told for a specific reason (that reason can be to entertain, to impart a moral, to make the teller seem smart, to humiliate someone else, to teach, to ingratiate the teller to the tellee, etc.).

Elizabeth Baines
I think of something jewelled, dense, which will glow in the mind long after you have finished reading it.

Richard Bardsley
Anything that holds your interest as a reader.

Aimee Bender
A tough question! The feeling of holding onto a sparkling handrail into the dark.

Tom Bissell
Nothing, really, other than serving as a placeholder term for a certain kind of literary experience, which is itself as essentially variable as a medieval bestiary.

Kiril Bozhinov
Annihilation, mystification, unmasking, abstaining … anything but entertainment.

Hugh Brody
Something that is told and has a magic. Something that reaches out and holds because of the events it offers and follows. Something that offers both the fearful and comforting, though always there is a reassurance that the story exists, is told. I have heard such amazing stories from Inuit and other indigenous peoples, in their homes, around fires, in tents at night. These seemed to be the archetypes. Yet I know that there is a story in so many places, in a multitude of forms.

Jason Brown
It means why am I alive, why will I die, make me laugh, why are things this way, help me escape myself, don’t let me escape myself, lie to me, show me how I lie to myself, I can’t believe you said that, I can’t believe the things I remember are now only real to me.

Randall Brown
Oh, a lot of things, but I think the best stories end with haunting, either because of their profundity or their emotional resonance. The desire for these things—for meaning and feeling—maybe drives narratives into existence, a desire shared by the character(s), readers, and the author. That coming together of these entities around wanting something, desperately and urgently, gives reading and writing (for me) its charged intensity. The writer Douglas Glover says this of the short story, “Literature is a way of thinking in which you think by pushing your characters through a set of actions (testing that character in a series of scenes which involve the same conflict).” I think Aristotle said something profound about a story having a beginning, middle, and end. Joseph Campbell discovered in his reading the ONE way to tell a story, the Monomyth, which Kurt Vonnegut summarized as “The hero gets into trouble. The hero gets out of trouble.” “Separation—initiation—return,” writes Campbell, “might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.” In describing the narrative pattern of journeys, such as Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Clift and Clift argue that stories work to “help one make sense of the boredom before and the terror during each journey.” Out of these ideas, a very simple, workable definition of plot and narrative structure emerges: As the result of some inciting incident, desire (the beginning of a story) creates actions (the story’s middle) leading to an outcome (the end).

James Burr
“Vastly, and inexplicably underrated, form of prose.” I love short stories and I just don’t understand why the publishing industry, and indeed many readers too, look down upon them. In these times of multi-media saturation and short attention spans surely the short story is THE medium of our times! Surely, just being able to dip in and out of a book whenever you have a few minutes to spare is the way we should all be reading now? Yet stories continue to be seen as the immature, less-devloped sibling to the novel, or worse, as a training ground for aspiring novelists. In my opinion, a good short story collection should always be superior to a good novel – the sheer range of narrative voices that can be used, the variety of characters, the number of ideas that can be explored…. Then again, while I don’t write genre fiction I come from a genre background, so I see a short story as having “a point.” When you read a story by Philip.K. Dick or Ray Bradbury or Clive Barker there is a definite purpose to the story – it is complete in and of itself. I wonder if the reason many people don’t like reading short stories is because they read stories that are essentially notes for abandoned novels masquerading as “mood pieces” or half-formed vignettes pretending to be “character studies.” This is a failing I often see in more “literary” short story collections, and it annoys me intensely. A story should be complete in itself, whether it be 1000, 5000 or 20000 words long. It isn’t just “a short piece of prose” that isn’t long enough to be padded up into a novel, nor is it just a single, clever idea. That isn’t a short story. That’s a vignette, or even, dare I say, a joke.

How would you answer the question?

9 comments on “What does the word "story" mean to you?

  1. Alex Keegan
    May 23, 2009

    Tania, I don't like the question.You ask about "STORY" not Short-Story or long-story, or novella, or novel.Is War & Peace a story? Of course.And the next question is do we add the adjective GOOD?For example, some crude, cheap "womag" "thing" that calls itself a story but is slight beyond belief and living for its horrid twist-ending…?I wouldn't call that a story, but the magazine does.Maybe we should answer by saying what a story ISN'TAlex


  2. Tania Hershman
    May 23, 2009

    Alex,feel free to dislike the question! I was interested in “story” in general, not short story, I just wanted to know what they associated with the word. “Good story”, now that is far more loaded…!I’d love to hear what you think a story isn’t – I will take it to my short story workshop on Monday and tell my students.


  3. Alex Keegan
    May 23, 2009

    My apologies, as it was “The SHORT Review” I thought…Anyway, I sent you my views by E.alex


  4. Nancy Boutin
    May 23, 2009

    Story is character growth through struggle–regardless of length. And while it can be convoluted, chaotic, and multilayered, at the end there should be a feeling of completion because either the character or the reader or both have a better understanding of some aspect of the human condition. The ending is both surprising and inevitable–the world makes sense, if only for a moment.Other writing may be beautiful, brilliant, disturbing, lyrical, any number of other things–but without struggle, growth, and resolution, it isn’t a story.


  5. Tania Hershman
    May 23, 2009

    Alex, no apologies necessary, it is confusing, I admit. Sorry about that!Nancy, very well put. I would add, if I may, that for me that it doesn’t need to be a great struggle, an enormous obstacle, major growth. It can be small, quiet, minuscule. But there has to be tension and shift.


  6. Alex Keegan
    May 27, 2009

    Tania, feel free to post my full response (the one I emailed to you)alex


  7. Tania Hershman
    May 27, 2009

    Alex, here it is:I am asked what is a story? I find the question too vague.I think of a story as prose-fiction on a page (or now on a computer screen) but isn’t a feature-film a story, isn’t a novel? What about a play? And if I read a “True Story” what’s the second word there?I will therefore answer my own question:What is a GOOD short-story, and what is it not?”A good short story is intended to be read in a single sitting. It is a whole, a thing, not a dip-into kind of thing, unlike a novel. It is focussed, accurate, economical. It does not sprawl like a novel. It is (or should be) nearer the poem than a short novel.I should say here, that many short-stories in US journals have the character of compressed novels. They have no “magic of the short piece”. They are short because they are usually under ten thousand words, but many are indistinguishable from the novel form (except that they are shorter.)For me a short-story, read in a single sitting, is not about beginnings, middles, ends, it is about taking me and changing me, making my world lighter, darker, different. I begin as one thing, and if the story is good, I am a little different at the end.A GREAT short-story (Sargeant’s The Ledge, Bellow’s A Silver Dish, Carver’s Cathedral or A Small Good Thing) moves the gut sideways, enters us. If we can read another story in the next hour, then it’s not a great story.Language in a (good) short-story is an actual, physical part of the work. In the case of a poem this is a given. In sort-stories it is less certain, but it should be. A novel, really is only about story. Linguistic gifts are a bonus. But a short-story, as well as its semantics, as well as its plot-line and characters, interacts, with its medium. The tone, and colour and attitude of the telling IS story. That is, for me at least, there has to be something poetic in a good short-story, the fantastic line, the image that breaks our heart, the insight that takes the breath.I don’t get that from novels (and I’m not good at getting it from poetry) because a short-story is not an independent thing, it loves the reader and makes the reader love it back, and both are changed.


  8. jeffrey
    May 27, 2010

    Story is about the changing of values within a character, where through crisis a greater understanding of the human experience is realized.


  9. viagra online
    May 19, 2011

    the easiest question sometimes are the most difficult to answer. It is interesting to hear all those answer that people can come to


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This entry was posted on May 23, 2009 by in authors, interviews, story, the short review.
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