Saturday, March 7, 2009

Short Stories and Novels

The ordinary lives of ordinary people make the best short stories. I have been reading R K Narayan's Malgudi Days, which is a splendid collection of stories based in a fictional town called Malgudi, but as the author himself puts it, "If I explain that Malgudi is a small town in South India I shall only be expressing a half-truth, for the characteristics of Malgudi seem to me universal."

His stories are short, on an average never exceeding 3-4 pages.

Here is a excerpt from R K Narayan's Introduction to Malgudi Days.

The short story affords a writer a welcome diversion from hard work. The novel, whether good or bad, printable or otherwise, involves considerable labour.
Unlike the novel, which emerges from relevant, minutely worked-out detail, the short story can be brought into existence through a mere suggestion of detail, the focus being kept on a central idea or climax.

To me, a short story is a Twenty20 match and a novel is test cricket. Both the T20 and the short story are compact, focussed and do not have scope for elaboration. The T20 has only 20 overs each, and the game is over in three or four hours. There is a limited time to achieve the objectives, be it taking the runs to the best possible score in two hours, or describing the people and plot in eight to ten pages. Whereas the test match goes on for five days, and the batsmen take their time, take no risks and slowly, deliberately raise the score. The novel, similarly, has ample time and space to describe and elaborate the characters and the plot, sub-plots and digressions.

Where does an author find inspiration for a story? Anywhere and everywhere. The story lurks around, among the people and things one sees daily. Every individual, every day, has a story to tell. A writer keeps his eyes and ears open to observe these stories and captures them with his five very imaginative senses and weaves a plot around it, sometimes real, sometimes fictional, many a time influenced by reality. Then he uses his literary prowess to convert it to a beautifully developed story. He borrows ideas from the instances that he has recorded in his past. The best told stories leave the reader with a sense of awe at the connection the story has to his own life, admiration for the writer's skills, and a powerful memory that remains etched in his brain.

The characters in his story will undoubtedly be based on the people around him, despite the author's claims that there is no relation to anyone living or dead. Writers, like painters, need a model to start with. The final mould of the character need not be the same as the model he began with. For instance, he may start with a good likeness of Anupam Kher with his comic tendencies, as a principal. Then he would impress upon him the rough characteristics of the principal of his own college, and with a little colouring the character is more or less ready, and it has no relation to anyone living or dead. Not directly.

Similarly, the environment of the story in general has its origin in the author's own backyard. Not always, but one can definitely find a parallel.

When one recognises his own skill of story-telling, he further develops it intentionally and sometimes unknowingly by beginning to note the gestures and activities of everyone within his view, and improving his vocabulary with every reading he does. He pauses at every word he comes across that might be new or familiar but submerged in his memory, and imprints them in his mind so that he can use them when the need arises. He takes care to note down the thoughts that flow within and into him every day, every hour and refine them into elegantly written prose.

It is imperative for a writer to keep writing. It is even more essential to keep reading. Left to itself without nourishment, like any other skill, one's literary talent also tends to sink to obscurity.

One of the authors whose books I devour with profound admiration is Gabriel García Márquez. Love in the time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude have fascinated me to an unbelievable extent. A number of other titles by Gabo, I am yet to read.

Perhaps another day, if I am able to find the words to describe what his work inspires in me, I would try to post here...

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