Roald Dahl – Image courtesy of The Guardian.
It is so many years ago that I read this book, but it left a lasting impression on me and had certainly influenced my book of short stories “Flight of Destiny”. Maybe some of the concepts in this book seem a bit dated…but then it was published in 1960 and times were rather different then. Would you call your short story “Parson’s Pleasure” and the main character Cyril Boggis? If you don’t know this story it is about a shady antiques dealer, who takes advantage of naive country types, and comes across a priceless Chippendale commode, which he acquires for twenty pounds with the intention of selling it for twenty thousand. What we can safely say about Roald Dahl’s stories is that there is a significant twist at the end of each story. It is this aspect that really influenced my short story writing.
Where did Roald Dahl get the ideas for his dark stories? Here is a writer who also wrote equally lauded and memorable children’s stories “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” “James and the Giant Peach” and “Matilda”. Roald Dahl was able to make an easy transition between writing for adults and children. It is true that often children’s stories are dark.
Roald Dahl did not have a happy childhood. His sister and father both died, one not long after the other, when he was still very young. Like myself he was sent away to boarding school. If you haven’t experienced an English boarding school first hand, it is hard to imagine, what such institutions are really like. His experience involved being caned as well as being bullied by older boys. It was also during his time at boarding school, that he became a bit of a prankster. More significantly he had a special fondness for a sweet store and the idea for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory germinated from this period of his life. He endured a particularly savage punishment after he and some friends dropped a mouse into a lolly jar, which doesn’t sound like it warranted much of a punishment.
I also vividly remember watching “Tales of the Unexpected” a TV series based Roald Dahl’s short stories. The show’s music is very distinctive and the titles at the beginning and end, maybe were a bit daring at the time. The show attracted some well-known actors at the time, drawn to act in Dahl’s imaginative dark stories. Maybe they are a bit too “quaint” in terms of these days. I picked up a DVD of the show, in a second-hand shop.
With my own short stories, like Dahl, I try to include an unexpected twist at the end. With short stories, you face limits, you have create characters, that the reader will immediately identify with. You have to create strong dialogue. You have to create an opening sentence like no other, that grabs the reader’s attention. Some people believe that authors graduate from being short story writers into full novel writers, a kind of literary rite of passage…me?…I really like this format of writing. My work might be much darker than Roald Dahl might have dared…but I really admire his work and “Kiss Kiss” will always be very special to me.
If you read this quote by Cormac McCarthy, “I’m not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn’t take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.” There seems to be a sentiment that short stories are not seen in the same light as full novels. Personally I love this format of writing.
What he is saying is that to be a fully fledged writer, you need sweat blood, perhaps for him short story writing is an easy route, so not of the same value as a full novel.
Some quotes on short stories…
“A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion – than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.”
– Eudora Welty
“You become a different writer when you approach a short story. When things are not always having to represent other things, you find real human beings begin to cautiously appear on your pages.” – Zadie Smith
Deborah Eisenberg states that “the plot of a good story is likely to be a stranger, more volatile and more evanescent sort of thing than the plot of a novel”. You can’t meander with a short story. A short story, can’t evoke the expanse and diversity of life, and takes the reader’s attention towards a more limited aspect. With full novels, the author is forced to wrap things up, whereas the short novelist can afford to be ambiguous. So a novel and short story have different constraints.
By Francis H Powell
Author of Flight of Destiny, a book of 22 short stories.