I try not to make sweeping pronouncements about what does and doesn’t work in short stories, because I’ll always turn out to be wrong. But I’ve got some observations. I once mentioned to a room of writers that I felt the “failure rate” among stories from six to ten double-spaced pages, or approximately 1,750-3,000 words in length, was higher than in stories above or below that word count. I panicked to immediately hear a roomful of pens scratch on a roomful of notebooks; I imagined them all writing “1,750-3,000 words” and putting a big diagonal NO slash across it. I rushed to say that I didn’t mean that stories at this length were never successful, or that longer or shorter stories were invariably better. But what I have noticed in my reading is that this length is often a no-man’s land. At the lower end of the danger zone I find stories built around a specific image, conceit, or moment of surprise—they have the structure and fuel of a flash fiction, but overstay their welcome, repeating what doesn’t need to be repeated. At the upper end, I find stories that cut short their own complicated conflicts and characters, rather than giving those elements more time and space to develop.
All of this is personal observation, not a rule. A writer shouldn’t so much avoid this length as try to make extra sure it’s the right container for her contents. There are many excellent stories this length. For example, “A Prerogative” by Rolf Yngve, in the Mar/Apr 2015 print magazine, clocks in at 2,463 words.
How does Rolf pull off this in-between length? I don’t want to spoil the story, but I will tell you it takes place on a highway bridge where Jim Ehrlich, former naval officer and current office worker, pulls over when he sees a young woman on the verge of jumping. Jim first tries simply to get her attention, offer her a handkerchief. Gradually (but not too gradually, because this story is only 2,463 words) Jim resorts to stranger and more shocking methods, until his own sense of what he’s trying to accomplish shifts dizzyingly, eerie as the “vertigo sky” above the steep bridge and cable safety nets.
That setting doesn’t start out spooky—on the first page, Jim is commuting home early after an easy day: “A cheerful few hours at his desk, all good news, even the stock market up, and his day had moved peacefully along through a clear spring afternoon.” Especially important in a 2,463-word story, even seemingly mundane details are doing double or triple duty. We aren’t told simply that Jim had a good day, or that the weather is nice—we receive information about what makes a nice day for Jim Ehrlich, specifically, at this point in his life, at least. He also has thirty-five years in the Navy behind him, and despite not containing any extended flashbacks or scenes beyond the bridge interaction, the story finds deft ways to indicate how both past and present have made Jim who he is and drive his behavior on the bridge. A line like “When he’d had people this young working for him in the Navy, Ehrlich had always kept a box of Kleenex on his desk” tells us something about both Jim and the jumper. A passage like “Ehrlich looked out to a lean horizon. A cruiser raising its hull had made the turn to come into port. Such warships always look so calm at a distance, the day gone, guns laid to rest, fore and aft, the decks stowed, all lines rigged. The ends of such days, so much comfort from routine passage-making with the sun astern casting its light deep into the harbor, and he was there, in the pilothouse, the watch still keeping all at ease…” illustrates Jim, the setting, and the story itself—calm at a distance. Up close? Not exactly. With impressive control and compression, Rolf Yngve uses each one of his 2,463 words to build a tale that both satisfies and unsettles.
A note on the audio: KR authors are asked to create an audio recording of their pieces to appear on our website or in the KR podcast. But in this case, Rolf beat us to it. He had already created an audio version of “A Prerogative,” as well as a visual image to complement the story. Of the connection between the ear and the eye, Rolf writes, “I’ve been thinking about how I can use audio to accentuate or punctuate the reading. The version here is one where I’ve added sound, working to try to not be a mere reiteration of the story, but rather to accentuate the story. . . . My work has gone in this direction out of two impulses—my fascination with sound and still photo themselves. And my sense that the short story art lends itself to the web, both to be heard and to be read.”