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Assorted Thoughts on Comedy, Drama, and Brevity

Posted on 08.31.2015 at 09:12
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I’d consider myself devoted to short fiction. About a sixth of my personal library is made up of anthologies and collections. Each year I read over a hundred short stories. I look forward to new releases from my favorite authors as much as anyone, but I get a special frisson of excitement when the next publication collects their latest short work. But for all that, I don’t entirely get flash fiction.*

Maybe it’s because I don’t read enough of it to develop an appreciation for the form. After all, I certainly didn’t fall in love with short fiction with the first story I read—or even the next few. Maybe it’s because flash pieces rarely give me what I most value in a story: characters I feel like I know or a plot that leaves me eager to know what happens next, though when it comes to stylistic or structural experiment, flash can succeed. Maybe it’s because I can’t write it and so I feel shut out as a reader as well as a writer. I mean, even my short stories tend to run longer than the publishing norm (~8000 words), and I gravitate toward drama more so than comedy; to me, pathos seems more difficult to pull off in a short span.

What made me think of brevity in relation to comedy and drama was a live storytelling performance I saw earlier this month. Familiar with The Moth? Well, Philadelphia has its own version—StorySlams, care of First Person Arts. Five minutes to tell a true story in front of an audience, no notes, judged by random people from the crowd. As a listener, I thought it was a lot of fun. For the storytellers, I imagine it’s a special kind of hell. (I’m not really fond of talking about my life or of public speaking, so maybe it’s hellish only in my eyes.) If you get the chance to go to an event in this vein, I recommend it. People can really impress with their memory and the way they shape ordinary experiences into micro-arcs.

I noticed something at the end of the night. Of the ten storytellers, only one told a more melancholy story; all the rest were played for laughs. On some level, I get that. Remember this is a live performance—if no one’s laughing when you hope, you can tell. In writing, there’s no instant feedback loop. And even for a live performance, you can’t necessarily tell if you’ve got someone by the heartstrings. Feeling sympathy or pity or whatever doesn’t always result in an outward display.

I’ve got a theory. Comedy can be condensed. Witness the one-liner. I’m not sure if Twitter has been a blessing or a curse for comedic writing, but I see more people going for wit than, say, profundity. (Not that the two are mutually exclusive.) But what about something like the six-word story? For sale: baby shoes, never worn. They can achieve pathos, right? Sure, but while I think micro-stories can elicit some of the emotions intended, I don’t think they can be nearly as powerful as a fully dramatized story, where you get to know and bond with characters, inhabit a world for more than a few minutes. I’ve gotten more laughter from someone else’s pithy observation than from some entire movies. So maybe there’s something to my theory. Maybe not. It has me thinking, though, which is good. I haven’t been in the headspace of stories for quite a while. I need to find my way back to it.

* A possible post for the future.

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