For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a problem writing essays with an assigned word length. I like to say as much as I can with as few words as possible, because to me good writing is concise and to the point. When I’m required to artificially lengthen my work, the result is always weak and diluted.
I think that this paradigm can be applied to all media. For instance, the film Strange Days had some interesting ideas, but as a two hour long feature film they were lost in a sea of pointless action and terrible drawn-out dialogue. Done right, it could have made a great 20 minute short film. Consider the last 80 hour RPG you played: could it have been an even better 50 hour RPG by removing a tedious dungeon crawl or two?
It’s perhaps my inclination towards succinctness that makes me a fan of short stories. A novel based on an idea will usually explore every facet of this idea and all of its implications. While this works well for some concepts, there are certainly others that are perhaps too experimental and strange. These quirky ideas would likely fall apart or become lost in a novel, but they can easily become the central theme of a short story.
I’ve listed a few of my favorite short stories below. Where applicable, I’ve linked to sites I’ve found that host them; otherwise, a little Googling will usually do the trick.
- Eight O’Clock in the Morning – Ray Nelson
An alien race controls humanity through subliminal messages in television, advertisements and billboards.
- A Sound of Thunder – Ray Bradbudy
Published in 1952, it was one of the first short stories to deal with what would later be called The Butterfly Effect; the idea that one small change in the past could completely rewrite the present.
- The Lottery – Shirley Jackson
One of the most chilling short stories I’ve ever read, it deals with the evils that are permitted in the name of tradition and crowd mentality.
- I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – Harlan Ellison
An insane omnipotent computer tortures the last five humans on Earth.
- We Can Remember It For You Wholesale – Philip K. Dick
The story that inspired the film Total Recall, it deals with the implications of memory replacement.
- Little Lost Robot – Isaac Asimov
This is my favorite short story from I, Robot. Dr. Susan Calvin must use logic to expose the one robot among an identical hundred that has had its programming altered and is now a threat to humans.
- Harrison Bergeron – Kurt Vonnegut
To finally achieve societal equality, the government forcefully handicaps those whose beauty, intelligence or athletic abilities give them an “unfair advantage” over everyone else.
- How To Talk To Girls At Parties – Neil Gaiman [link]
This story is a nominee for the 2007 Hugo Award. An awkward young man is dragged along to a party, but all is not as it seems.
I’m always on the lookout for more great short stories, so please comment with your favorites.