“It wasn’t by accident,” wrote Hemingway, “that the Gettysburg Address was short.” His 1932 letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, went on to lament every writer’s tendency to write too long, drifting beyond the story’s natural focus. He was, he admitted, as guilty as the next guy.
“My temptation is always to write too much,” he continued. “I keep it under control so as not to have to cut out crap and re-write. Guys who think they are geniuses because they have never learned how to say no to a typewriter are a common phenomenon. All you have to do is to get a phony style and you can write any amount of words. … All the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones.”
It’s important that we learn to tell actual stories – that is, stories in the literary sense – in short, quick-and-dirty versions. The point, after all, is that we use improved storytelling skills to make more appealing reads. A Sunday story that runs 3,000 words helps. But short daily stories that brighten the weekday paper may be even more important. Short stories reach more people. And they reach them more often.
Besides, good storytellers can maintain a much more consistent presence in the paper if they write short – and often. Does a writer have more impact with something that appears once every three months or once every three days?
Short stories with a real literary quality used to be a staple of American newspaper journalism. Hemingway wrote them in Kansas City and Toronto. And Hal Boyle produced compelling shorties for the AP all the way through World War II.
AP dispatched Boyle’s Shorty Plotnick story, reprinted below, on Sept. 1, 1944. It demonstrates that short stories can contain almost all the important storytelling elements. It has a protagonist – Shorty himself – and an antagonist: the Germans. It has a complication – the machine-gun nest. It’s broken into exposition (the background on Shorty), rising action (the attack), a climax (Shorty’s death and his ascendancy to hero status), and a denouement (the discussion of Shorty as “the best damned soldier in the division.”). All that, and only 19 paragraphs – a real shorty for Shorty.
(With American troops in France) Shorty came a long way to die – and he came against the will of the Army he had served for 27 years.
“Leave me tell you,” he used to say, “I’ll get those Germans.”
That was back in the United States. Shorty had what most soldiers regard as a soft touch, a master sergeant’s rating on the operations staff of an armored outfit’s headquarters.
He had the reputation of eating young “shavetails” for breakfast, and every man in the unit was fond of this sawed-off, gray-haired little man with the salty voice and the tough manner.
He was a good poker player and after 27 years of selective competition with cards he had put away enough buck privates’ pay so that he and his wife could afford more than C rations any time he wanted to hang up his uniform.
But although his health was poor, Shorty had no wish to get out of the Army. He was only 5 feet 4 and he was all soldier.
When he learned his outfit was going overseas, Shorty had to fight a personal campaign to go along. He was the oldest man in the unit, and his friends didn’t think his health would stand up under the strain of field duty.
“He had 111 things wrong with him, from varicose veins to arteriosclerosis,” said Lt. Edward Sasson, Los Angeles, “but he wasn’t looking for a way out.”
Shorty was Russian and hated the Germans. He hated them in the last war, too, and won the Purple Heart and three wound stripes fighting them in France. He waved those wound stripes to clinch his point – that he had earned a chance for a return at the enemy.
“Leave me tell you,” he said with a deeply serious look on his gnome-like face, “I’ll get those Germans.”
Today a small group of officers who knew and loved the lionhearted little man stood around a jeep near the front lines and talked sadly of how the Germans finally got Shorty.
“We’d just taken a town,” said his company commander, Captain James Kuhns, Greensburg, Pennsylvania, “and Shorty and two other men heard there still was a German machine-gun nest giving us trouble in one of the buildings.
“It wasn’t the concern of the operations sergeant to knock it out, but you couldn’t keep Shorty from going after those Germans. He was armed only with a pistol, but the two men with him had carbines. Shorty told them, ‘OK, I’ll go out and draw their fire, and then you boys give it to them.’
“He edged out, but the Germans caught him with the first burst and mowed him down. He died before he knew he had located and wiped out that machine-gun nest. That was like Shorty – sticking his own neck out.”
“Poor old Shorty,” one officer said. There was silence for a minute, then another officer laughed reminiscently.
“Remember the time that young lieutenant walked up to Shorty and told him to take his hands out of his pockets, and Shorty just looked at him and said, ‘Listen, recruit – ‘?”
For a quarter of an hour they stood there within a few hundred yards of the front lines, telling legends of Shorty. He never knew his own age because he had no birth record.
“He was the best damned soldier in this division, said Maj. Nathan M. Quinn, Spencer, Mass.
Shorty would rather have had that sentence over his grave than his own name plate – Sgt. Joe L. Plotnick, Baltimore, Maryland – because when he was alive he proudly thought so, too. He knew he was “the best damned soldier” in any division. He wouldn’t have been Shorty if he hadn’t thought so.
© Jack Hart, 1999