Because You Need a Literary Punch to the Gut: The Craft of the Short Story and “Gigantic” by Benjamin Harnett
I owe you all a lot. I’ve got at least five books I want to review or talk about. And I’ve been wanting to talk about them for so long I’m sure I’ll expose myself as the word-nerd mouth breather fan I am when I actually do get around to it (placeholder: Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed).
I also owe you a write-up of the Chicago Writers Conference (placeholder: a super-fan blurb by me).
All that stuff will take a while, though. You know I’m an editor and a writer, so I write all my posts with, well, I don’t want to say pain-staking detail, because it’s not painful to write (not physically) (usually), but still.
I think it’s safe to say that I consider each and every word. (I was going to add more, but let’s leave it at that.)
That’s why I appreciate a well-crafted short story.
A short story is like a poem. Every word counts.
What’s the difference between 6,000 words and 60,000? Don’t bother with the math. I’m not talking about subtraction. I’m talking about the gaps you have to fill in as a writer, which are, counterintuitive though it may sound, much larger when your space is already constricted. You do not have chapter upon chapter for, say, character development.
In terms of accomplishing what you want as the writer, narrator, and general story overlord, when you have a small number of words, each one weighs twice as much.
While reading a short story, your readers aren’t hunkering down with a mug of tea and a sandwich, thinking, “Ah, aren’t Sunday mornings nice?”
Readers who dip into a short story are people like me, catching up on news and links between 5:27 and 5:43 p.m. on the train. Time is of the essence.
I found “Gigantic” by Benjamin Harnett through another Ben on Twitter, while, yes, on the train. (I should mention, too, that I apparently rub elbows with quite a few Twitter Bens who work with words, including a Chicago one.)
The first few sentences of “Gigantic” sucked me in completely. They read like a diary. I scrolled up to the byline because I almost thought that the story was a true first-person account. Just one paragraph in and I was a believer.
The narration had a sense of immediacy, but there was also an ease to the sequence. The words felt strung together like beads, not overwrought. I knew there was craft at work, but it was invisible. I could feel it, not see it.
I don’t want to tell you a lot about “Gigantic” because I need you to go read it. But maybe you’re not convinced yet.
Harnett’s story has all the elements I look for: a length that makes it easy to read in one fell swoop; a believable narrator, even in what some would call a dystopian or sci-fi setting; and the careful attention to language you need in the confines of a limited word count.
Because if the short story is about anything, it’s about the craft it takes to get in and get out in as few words as you can while still creating memorable, and recognizable, images.
Back when we still used to talk about it, my husband would take his glasses off, put them back on, then take them off again. He’d rub naked eyes, put the glasses back on a final time, then say nothing.
You know I’m a fan of saying a lot without saying much.
One more element to the short story that I love: the punch. Sometimes it comes right in the middle, where you least expect it. But some kicky authors work the system for maximum effect and like to wait until the very last line. You need that, as a reader. You need a literary punch to the gut.
You should go read “Gigantic.” Come back when you’re done and tell me what you think.by