The beauty of short stories is they can be just as enjoyable as any novel but they don’t take nearly as long to read. And short stories can get away with things we’d never settle for in a novel, especially when it comes to endings. The best short stories leave us wanting more, and yet it would ruin them if they gave us more. Take, for example, A. Manette Ansay’s story Smoke, from her collection Read This And Tell Me What It Says. In it an old woman is haunted by her dead husband. She is only protected by her cats. Her cats provide little protection, but it’s enough.
He wakes her just before dawn. She sees the smudge of his shadow in the corner across from her bed. The cats cluster in the doorway, but none of them will come in.
The cats protect her by their presence, and because he hated cats she believes they’ll protect her. I won’t say how it ends, but it is ambiguous. It ends the way only a short story can. If this were a novel there’d have to be more: the woman is crazy, and her family has to deal with her, or her husband’s ghost is real, possibly even the first wave of the dead coming back to haunt the living. It could go a million different directions, but, in the end, it doesn’t need to.
Ansay’s characters are also often tormented, but not necessarily tormented in big ways, ways that would fill a novel. Mary Ann, the narrator of the title story is a compulsive thief because it calms her. She says, “I was nervous and awkward most of the time, but when I stole I was smooth as cream.” This is not the story’s central problem, though: it’s her complicated relationship with her father and family, who expect her to get an education, and her friends. Making it a short story gives Ansay a chance to let a character in a larger drama tell just her story.
Sometimes, too, a short story is a way to tell a story that just can’t be made into a novel. Ansay told me her story Neighbor was inspired by a real neighbor, someone who bugged her.
A writing teacher I once had said that writing a novel is easy. All you have to do is write one page a day for a year and you’ll have a novel. While writing a short story may take at least that long, the short story can be so much harder because each time a writer has to start over from scratch.