Write a story every day, part 8: What IS a story?

On January 1st, 2007, I decided to write a short story every day. So far I’ve managed a perfect record over two years and six days! Quite apart from writing more than 700 short stories, I learned a whole bunch of things in the process. I thought this would be a good time to go over the ground I covered.

What is a short story? There’s no consensus among writers. Some say a story of any length MUST have a beginning, middle, and end. No beginning, middle, and end: no story. I’ve always been bothered by these three terms. They don’t tell you much about what stories really are like, how they “behave” in practice. I think good stories of any sort—short stories, novels, plays, movies—have a premise, the build-up of tension and conflict, and a denouement or resolution of some sort. You might call the premise the “beginning,” the build-up the “middle,” and the resolution the “end.” But without these meaty characteristics, a beginning, a middle, and end are incomplete and misleading concepts.

Some writers claim that a short story MUST have a protagonist, main character, or “hero,” and the protagonist MUST undergo some inner change as the story unfolds. The character starts the story in some state of mind and comes out of it having had an insight about himself or the world around him or the meaning of life in general. James Joyce called this insight an “epiphany.” The term originally referred to how the baby Jesus’ divine nature was made manifest to the Gentiles, via the Magi. In this sense, an epiphany is the manifestation of a divine being; an epiphany is a revelation.

The term as used by James Joyce has now entered the common discourse.

“Honey, I had an epiphany while at the supermarket today.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“I don’t like cleaning your cat’s damn litter box. Never did. From now on it’s your job.”

“Epiphany, shemiphany. I gave you the damn cat for your damn birthday, remember?”

When I decided to write a short story everyday, I also decided to free myself from any preconceived ideas about what a story is or should be. Anything I write, I call a short story if I feel like it! Yes, it’s a form of cheating. But it allowed me to write very freely every single day—so freely and so prolifically that I even ended up writing dozens of stories with a beginning, middle, and end, with a protagonist that undergoes some sort of epiphany or revelation.

Lesson #1: You’re the boss of your own life. Make your choices and live with the consequences of the choices you make. I stand by my supremely permissive definition of “short story,” and I accept that, as a consequence of my own permissiveness, the authorities might refuse to call my daily efforts “short stories.”

In my next post I’ll tell you what kinds of stories I wrote over these past two years.