The genres of short prose writing can be very confusing. For example, some writers will call their personal essay a story, and others will call their essay a memoir. To make matters even more complicated, a number of literary magazines are beginning to accept what is commonly called mixed genre writing. It’s important to understand the difference between the types of short prose, whether you’re writing an essay, short story, memoir, commentary, or mixed genre piece.
What is a short story?
A short story is a work of fictional prose. Its characters may be loosely based on real-life people, and its plot may be inspired by a real-life event; but overall more of the story is “made-up” than real. Sometimes, the story can be completely made-up. Short stories may be literary, or they may conform to genre standards (i.e., a romance short story, a science-fiction short story, a horror story, etc.). A short story is a work that the writer holds to be fiction (i.e., historical fiction based on real events, or a story that is entirely fiction).
Short Story Example: A writer is inspired by a car explosion in his town. He writes a story based on the real explosion and set in a similar town, but showing the made-up experiences of his characters (who may be partly based on real-life).
Short Story Example two: A writer writes a story based on a made-up explosion, set in a made-up town, and showing the made-up experiences of his characters.
What is a personal or narrative essay? What is an academic essay? What’s the difference?
Though factual, the personal essay, sometimes called a narrative essay, can feel like a short story, with “characters” and a plot arc. A personal essay is a short work of nonfiction that is not academic (that is, not a dissertation or scholarly exploration of criticism, etc.).
In a personal essay, the writer recounts his or her personal experiences or opinions. In an academic essay, the writer’s personal journey does not typically play a large part in the narrative (or plot line).
Sometimes the purpose of a personal essay is simply to entertain. Some personal essays may have a meditative or even dogmatic feel; a personal essay may illustrate a writer’s experiences in order to make an argument for the writer’s opinion. Some personal essays may cite other texts (like books, stories, or poems), but the focus of the citation is not to make an academic point. Rather, emphasis is on the writer’s emotional journey and insight.
Personal Essay Example: A writer pens the story of his experience at the scene of a car explosion in his town. The work is short enough for publication in a literary journal and focuses on the author’s perspective and insight.
What is a commentary?
The personal essay form and commentary may sometimes overlap, but it may be helpful to make some distinctions. A commentary is often very short (a few hundred words) and more journalistic in tone than a personal essay. It fits nicely as a column in a newspaper or on a personal blog. The writing can be more newsy than literary.
Some very short nonfiction pieces may be better suited to newspapers than to literary journals; however, literary magazines have been known to publish commentary-esque pieces that have a literary bent.
Commentary Example: A writer tells the story of a car explosion in his town to illustrate the point that the police are not vigilant enough about people throwing flaming marshmallows out their windows.
What is a memoir?
Memoir generally refers to longer works of nonfiction, written from the perspective of the author. Memoir does not generally refer to short personal essays. If you’re writing a short piece based on your real-life experiences, editors of literary journals will identify this as a personal essay. If you’re writing a book about an experience, it’s a memoir. A collection of interrelated personal essays may constitute a memoir.
Memoir Example: A writer composes a full-length book about his experiences after a car explosion in his town.
Learn more: Creative Nonfiction: How To Stay Out Of Trouble
What is a nonfiction short story?
There’s no such thing as a nonfiction short story. Short stories are inherently fiction (with or without real-life inspiration). Personal essays are not fictional.
So what is mixed genre writing?
Mixed genre writing is creative work that does not sit comfortably in any of the above genres. Mixed genre writing blends some elements of fiction with elements of nonfiction in a very deliberate way. Some examples:
Mixed Genre Example One: A professional accountant named John Jones is writing a story about a man named John Jones, who is John Jones and lives John Jones’ life—except that the fictional John Jones one day decides to leave his real-life accounting job, and live his dream of being a rock star (since the real-life John Jones is thinking of doing the same thing).
Is this a short story? An essay? If ninety percent of the story is true and ten percent is fiction, then what should the writer call this?
Mixed Genre Example Two: A writer decides to compose a family history, using pictures and documents from her family albums. But sometimes her story veers into fiction. She finds herself embellishing elements or omitting characters; and, the result is a story that’s better than the one she might tell if she were to stick to the facts.
Again, is this an essay? A short story? If half of the story is made-up, but half is very obviously true, it might be best called mixed genre.
NOTE: Sometimes the term mixed genre is defined in terms of the novel or book. A mixed genre novel might be a novel that mixes science fiction elements with characteristics of a legal thriller. Or a mixed genre novel might also be a work that plays fast and loose with fact and fiction. If you’re going to refer to your book as mixed genre, be clear about what you mean.
Learn more: Genre Fiction Rules: Find Out If Your Novel Meets Publishers’ And Literary Agents’ Criteria For Publication
Tips on Writing Mixed Genre
If you’re going to write mixed genre prose, do so with care. Mixed genre writing often has a kind of self-aware, almost tongue-in-cheek, element to it—a wink to the reader who is not fooled by the mixing of fiction and nonfiction, even if the lines are blurry. Mixed genre can be considered experimental, and as such, it’s important that the writing be exceptionally smart in order to live up to the demands of the (mixed) genre.
Why is mixed genre writing so often self-referential? Writing mixed genre and passing it off as an essay or a short story could make editors think that you are trying to dupe them, so it helps to include something in the work that makes reference to itself as being a mixture of fact and fiction. These “meta” elements can help put the reader at ease.
Who is publishing mixed genre short prose?
The primary markets for short prose are literary magazines and journals. Writer’s Relief frequently helps writers target their work to literary journals. For more information on how to find markets for your short prose, please read Researching Literary Markets for Your Work if you plan to research on your own. Or learn about Writer’s Relief submission services if you’d like help targeting your submissions.
Photo by greeblie via Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/greeblie/
QUESTION: Have you ever tackled a mixed genre piece?
Ronnie L. Smith, President of Writer’s Relief, Inc., an author’s submission service that helps creative writers get published by targeting their poems, essays, short stories, and books to the best-suited literary agents or editors of literary journals. www.WritersRelief.com
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The Short Story Essay
by Owen Fourie
“Yes! A short story!”
I have found that most students react favorably to an assignment requiring them to write a short story. They sense that the straitjacket has been removed, and the creative juices begin to flow.
Of course, for some students who have a long tale to tell, the shackles are still there in the form of a restriction to a certain number of words. If you find yourself in such a position, take it as a challenge that will serve to heighten your creativity as you teach yourself to write a complete short story in 1,000 words or 1,500 words. Occasionally, you could also feel restricted if your instructor rules out a certain genre, such as romance.
Bear in mind that writing a short story is a measure not only of your ability to write but also of your appreciation of how literature works. Good storytelling always has a structure, which we call a plot or a plotline, and this is what you need to demonstrate in your essay. Before dealing specifically with the development of the plot, you must choose your topic for a short story.
Hatching the plot
When you receive your assignment, make a list of your ideas taking into account the required length and the permitted genres. Ask yourself these questions:
- What are my interests? Skiing? Ice skating? Coin collecting? Egyptology? Ballet? Skateboarding?
- Which of these interests will serve as a good vehicle for a short story?
- What will be the problem or the conflict to be resolved?
- Who will be the hero, the heroine, the protagonist?
- Who will be the villain, the antagonist?
- Where will the story take place? Choose a setting familiar to you.
- When will it take place? Is it historical, contemporary, futuristic, science fiction? Remember that it is easier and better to keep the time frame of a short story spanning only a matter of a few days, perhaps an hour, but generally not less than that.
By asking these questions, your answers to some of them will already prepare the way for the development of the plot. At this point you need to work on your outline. To do so, you need to take the elements of the plotline into account. Simply stated, the plotline reveals the following stages:
- The exposition giving the time, the place, and the characters involved;
- The rising action revealing the problem, the conflict;
- The climax: the high point of the story where the action will take the characters one way or the other;
- The falling action telling of events leading from the climax to the resolution;
- The resolution telling how all the tensions and complications of the problem or the conflict have been resolved.
As you work on your outline, you need to work according to the plotline. The simplest form for the shortest of stories will devote one paragraph to each of these stages, perhaps two or three paragraphs for the rising action. With your outline complete, you are ready to write your story.
Getting down to writing … and a twist
Your writing should proceed through several drafts. In the first draft, you simply write without hesitation or much care about grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Your objective is to get the story down on paper without being troubled by any thoughts of whether this is correct, although you must keep to your outline.
As you come to your second draft, you take more care, you edit, and you correct obvious errors. With each draft, you improve your story, and the more drafts you make, the better your story should be. Once you have typed what you hope will be the final copy, leave it for a day or two–more, if possible–before returning to it and proofreading it. That proofreading will probably reveal more errors that have to be corrected before you print out the real final copy.
There are two more important points that you need to bear in mind as you write your story:
- Description versus dialog: When you write a short story, you should focus on narration rather than dialog. While some dialog is permissible–dialog that is essential to move the story forward–remember that you are not writing a play. Your narration can be in the first person as one of the characters telling the story or in the third person (or third person omniscient) as an outside observer. If you write in the first person, avoid telling a story that amounts to an autobiographical narrative.
- The best short stories contain a twist that comes at the very end to catch the reader off guard. Throughout the story, the writer gives hints of what will be revealed in the end, but they are subtle hints that will still leave the reader saying, “Of course! I should have seen that,” as the twist in the tale is given.
An excellent example of this is seen in O. Henry’s “After Twenty Years.” It is a little under 1,300 words in length and is easily and quickly read. Interestingly, the writer makes good use of dialog that moves the story forward–not one-word lines of exclamations, or only a few words in a series of single-line exchanges, but paragraphs of several lines spoken by each character. That is proper use of dialog in a short story. You will find the link to “After Twenty Years” at the end of this post.
If you follow all that I have told you here, you should be able to write a good short story and enjoy doing it too.
What is your experience with writing short stories? Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? What are your thoughts about O. Henry’s “After Twenty Years” as a model for short story writing? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
Link to O. Henry’s short story “After Twenty Years”:http://www.enotes.com/best-o-henry-text/after-twenty-years
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