The Cropped Short Story

What do a great shot and a solid short story have in common? Simple: the crop. This is one of a few pieces where I establish a connection between literature and another field, be it physics or photography.

The Cropped Short Story:

A Composition Compromise

Kenneth Burchfiel

Have pity on the short story writer. If their plot, setting and characters are kept rather undefined to stay within a respectable word count, critics dismiss the piece as they would a low-resolution photo. If they pack an elaborate, full-length story into, say, 3,000 or 5,000 words, the story appears too scrunched for the reader to really see anything. Short fiction writers are like photographers, in this sense; they want their “photo” to be small for brevity’s sake, but want the faces and scenes in it to be big enough for the reader to appreciate.

Of course, this defeatist assumption is built upon a one simple assumption of its own. “Cropped” short stories reject this base belief and, in doing so, might just solve the short story writer’s predicament over content and word count.

This preliminary assumption that I speak of is a basic tenet of literature: a proper story has a well-defined opening and a well-defined conclusion. This doesn’t entail that a story starts at the very beginning and ends at its natural conclusion; rather, the expectation goes that the story one’s audience reads is the story in (more or less) full detail. Traditional photos don’t end abruptly at a person’s elbow or eyebrow; rather, they display the whole scene at hand.

I’m not about to proclaim that plot is an archaic structure, and that the best stories have no transitions at all. (I do think that plots are archaic structures on which to build a story, however—see https://schreibendepot.wordpress.com/2008/05/05/thematism-a-new-look-at-the-writing-process/ ). Nevertheless, the unique structure of the short story gives writers the option to deviate from the time-honored tradition of beginning-to-end literature. A “cropped” short story, as its name would suggest, does not merely condense an extensive plot nor pick a simple, straightforward plot to express, but focuses on one part of that story in particular. Instead of trying to run 100 slides of film through a projector in ten seconds, a cropped story dedicates all ten seconds to a handful of those slides.

The attentive reader is probably wondering what I propose to do with the other 85 slides—the other parts of the plot and story that a “cropped” piece never covers. My retort is simple: those other 85 bits of film are more than present in the selected fifteen.

Let us return to the photographer’s analogy. Say that the cameraman has an oversized shot of a birthday party and must crop it down to size. She decides (not surprisingly) to focus on the birthday girl, cuts out that portion of the print and tosses the scrap film in the trash. Has the photo been ruined? Does it lose its effectiveness due to the crop? Quite the contrary. The new, smaller picture focuses on the girl, but we have a number of telling clues in the background. The pile of pink ballerina slippers alludes to a possible dance hall setting. A smear of brown frosting on little Natalie’s lips indicates the flavor of the cake, and the adult’s hand closed around her wrist tells the reader that the party is almost over. The scrapped background for the picture might have showed us this more clearly, but in a sense, the picture of the girl includes all those “missing” pieces.

It may be a paradox that such crops, either in photography or in writing, can make a piece far deeper than the original. If the reader saw the leftover cake, the ballet instructor and the waiting minivan immediately, would they have had such appreciation for those items? Cutting a story down to an eloquently described scene or two adds a hint of mystery and adventure to an otherwise standard piece. The reader might not know how a given story really begins, but the cropped piece they read has enough clues for them to figure it out. With enough literary dexterity, a writer can describe a full-length story in detail while focusing on just one scene alone.

This is merely the base of “Crop Theory.” Writers might try composing only the beginning and end of a story, placing them back-to-back on the page and explaining the gap in between through allusion and hints alone. They could write only the last chapter of a story, but richly enough that the rest of the book gets explained. The specifics are in the artist’s hands.

This literary technique is a fragile one, however. Improper handling, or a simple desire to turn a story on its head, might result in a cropped story breaking into fragments of dialogue and description. A writer cannot simply draft a park scene, then shove vague clues in the mass that allude to some unknown storyline. They must have a comprehensive understanding of the plot, characters and setting from which the scene is plucked, even if it seems wasteful to come up with names and events that never get explicitly mentioned. The expert photographer doesn’t just zoom in on an odd-colored frog; they take a picture of the entire rainforest and determine the crop that “says” the most.

It may seem that I’m typing on well-trodden ground. There’s nothing radical about taking out an opening scene or employing the showing, not telling method. What I propose, though, is that one takes these basic fundamentals to their functional reality by creating “long scenes” instead of “short stories.” It’s more than possible to express a book-sized plot in a handful of pages, provided that the writer use enough hints, references and dialogue to allude to that plot in full. As any photographer might say, the crop makes all the difference.

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