Fiction – To Be Taken Somewhere Else.


“A woman is sitting in her old, shuttered house. She knows that she is alone in the whole world; every other thing is dead. The doorbell rings.”

This short story is attributed to Thomas Bailey Aldrich

In fiction the “facts” may or may not be true. Hilary Mantel is perhaps exceptional in being an eminent authority on Henry VIII, in contrast, say, to the hugely successful TV serial ‘The Tudors’ where the syphilitic Henry remained good looking even in his latter years.

So, what do we expect from fiction?

With regard to historical fiction: A sense of how people act, not a thesis of how, at some past time, a few people acted.

A quick review of the evolution of the short story could help:

The Fable

Taken from Literature An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Writing edited by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia (Tenth edition).W Somerset Maugham’s 1933 retelling of an Arabian folk story as an example of a fable.

“The Appointment in Samarra

Death speaks: There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and he said: Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”


As we can see, in a fable, everything leads straight to the moral, stated or implied. For an audience listening, not reading, its reductive simplicity is memorable.

The Parable

If you want to explore this section further you can go to the Gutenberg link which offers non copyrighted work: The Rich Fool is copied from The Parables of Our Lord, by William Arnot


LUKE, xii 16-21 A certain rich man enjoyed such great harvests that he had an abundance of fruits. He replaced his modest barns with bigger and better, and told himself he had secured enough for his future, that he could take it easy; eat, drink, and be merry. But God said ‘Fool, what if your soul departs this world tonight? Who benefits then?’


by John Bunyan

Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a Publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself; God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this Publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the Publican, standing afar off would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.— Luke, xviii. 10-13.

The parable is similar to the fable in some ways, with two main differences.

  • The plot is plausibly realistic and the main characters are humans rather than anthropomorphised animals or natural forces.
  • Parables usually possess a more mysterious and suggestive tone. A fable customarily ends by explicitly stating its moral, but parables often present their morals implicitly, and their meanings can be open to several interpretations.


Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Grimm’s 1812 publication, translated in 1888.

The tales’ origins, be they oral or written, is one point to consider when reading Grimm’s Fairy tales. Another is how scary they can be and a third aspect is societal trends when publication took place.

In 1812, Enlightenment and the Rationalisation of Nature were no longer in vogue; they were eclipsed bythe Romantic Movement. With it came subjective emotion and spontaneity, liberalism and the coming together of a nation. The Grimm Brother’s creation ‘Children’s Tales and Household Tales,’ was a child of those times.

Fast forward to 1888, three generations later, Lucy translated and her brother, Walter Crane, “depicted” their English version. Times had changed. Objective Realism replaced the Romantics and the Pan-German movement that had initially spurred on the brothers Grimm in their acquisition of the folk tales. Look no further than The Almond Tree for stark illustrations of a new tone. The substance was faithful to the original with its cannibalism, resurrection, murder, love and greed, but its treatment was different, parodied. The same would happen today if used as fodder for ‘The Simpsons  metacartoon, ‘The Itchy and Scratchy Show’, Bart would love it and Lisa would talk about the morals that lay within.

On the face of it, what people go for has never changed. The Grimms’ tales blended folk lore with myth and a smattering of humour, just like episodes of ‘The Simpsons’. Violence is no more dumbed down in the 21st century than it was then, just portrayed within accepted conventions, as a cartoon within a cartoon.

In the nineteenth century a “bubble” of protection also existed, one appropriate to the times. It worked because there was no attempt to flesh out the characters. No urge to identify with, and root for, the protagonists wrestling with their inner demons. No need to show emotion or even recount it. Audiences accepted this world of symbolism and imagery and tacitly acknowledged its function in story-telling.

Make-believe characters, cartoons and shadow puppets dramatically convey story lines, yet their function is to distance us from any depicted violence.

Renditions do not stand still, suspended in time. They are frequently faithful to the times in which the edition comes out, not the original. Take the Crane translation of The Grimm’s Fairy tales as an example, freely available to all under the Gutenberg project.

It is useful to read contemporary short stories in order to better understand your craft, but do not ignore the masters because what made them great was their awareness of what a short story does and how it works.

Many great prose writers preferred the realm of short stories, some not stepping beyond it. You need look no further than Mark Twain, Stephen King, Alice Munroe, Raymond Carver and Katherine Mansfield to know that the short story is not just for the beginner and many writers produce their best work at his length.

This is an excerpt from one of our Writing Workshops.

Tracy Thomson

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