You’ve probably been taught that short stories follow the time-revered rule: Limit your story to a specific time, place, event, interaction, or character’s evolution. But the short story can be a more versatile genre than your high school English teacher sermonized. If we abide by too narrow a view, we may restrict or dilute our subjects or abandon potentially powerful ideas. Think about expansion.
Expansion in short stories is rarely, if ever, discussed in texts or fiction seminars and may sound a lot like background, setting, exposition, or backstory. But some stories maintain the character of the short story and introduce a broader outlook than we’ve been taught to expect. These stories carry a greater perspective and elicit more powerful responses than the more typical narrower story.
When you expand the scope of your story, you can encompass grand events—physical, historical, generational, psychological, emotional. You may evoke a sense of time and distance, stretching the reader’s mind beyond the expected confines of the short story. For example, expansions may synopsize a cataclysmic climate change, the long years of a religious war, a king’s rule, a civilization’s demise and regeneration, or a terrible pattern resounding through family generations.
Look at these two passages (mine). The first is conventional:
Jason’s father was always hard on him. From earliest childhood, Jason knew this was what to expect. It was almost a family tradition.
The second is an expansion:
Patriarchal discipline was ingrained into the very fabric of the family. It had gone on for generations and didn’t break for holidays, births, funerals, or world wars. It always got transmitted in torturous exactness from father to
son to son—and even to sons-in-law (by some bonded osmotic process) as men married into the family. None of the children could escape, and this oppressive mantle was now being passed to Jason.
What Expansion Is ... and Isn’t
Can you see from these examples how expansion differs from typical exposition? Both establish necessary grounding, but the expanded dimension is wider. In Jason’s family, no child can escape. The design is larger, and the discipline is passed down through the generations.
The range is also more courageous than the customary background. You are asked to push beyond the accepted rules of the short story—and you may land at the edge of a novel. In the second example about Jason, after the expansion, an entire chapter could easily be devoted to Jason’s great-grandfather’s mode of discipline and its influence on each family member. Another chapter could describe Jason’s grandfather as father, and a third could trace Jason’s father, finally introducing Jason. But in a short story, you don’t have the luxury of chapters for each scenario.
On the other hand, expansion isn’t mere rambling or lazy writing. Let’s say that in the second example above, instead of continuing with Jason, you talked about his two sisters and how they were (or weren’t) disciplined. This would be straying from the promised focus—Jason.
When to Expand
Expansion is appropriate when you want to give your story—or your main character’s struggles or conflicts—a context larger than what readers (and editors and agents) generally expect from short fiction. I wanted to show that Jason was not only up against his father’s habitual actions but also had to struggle with the strength of successive generations of disciplinarians. As Jason begins to question his father’s authority and power, the opening expansion shows us that Jason’s victory is that much more profound.
Expand in Relation to Your Story
The successful expansion must relate precisely to the heart of your story. It’s easy to get carried away with a grand scene, say, a lush description of wartorn years, but readers will recognize the self-indulgence of a sweep that doesn’t specifically connect to your protagonist and the main conflict.
In “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson starts her classic and bone-chilling story with a conventional opening; in this case, immediate action. On a balmy summer day, the citizens of a typically pleasant small town gather as if at a county fair. We’re introduced to the townsfolk by name as the men exchange sage words about the crops and weather, the women gossip, and the boys collect smooth stones and play boisterously.
But then, in the fourth paragraph, we’re given the first real indication of the day’s sinister nature. The townsfolk aren’t preparing for a county fair after all but instead for a macabre ritual—involving those apparently innocent stones—as old as the village.
Now Jackson expands with the history of the lottery’s focal point, the “black box”:
The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago...
There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here ... By now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.
This precise and detailed account emphasizes the centrality of the black box to the ancient, outdated rite that is still mandatory. With this background established, Jackson quickly refocuses on the present. We watch the citizens take their turns drawing slips of paper from the box to the story’s final horrific end.
Your expansion requires a smooth introduction and will later need a graceful exit. When your story starts with a sweep, obviously a transition obviously isn’t needed. But, as in Jackson, when the expansion takes place a few paragraphs into the story, we must watch its entry and departure. In “The Lottery,” Jackson positions the sweep artfully, setting the scene with the day’s action and with carefully planted descriptions segues into the expansion.
Here’s the sentence immediately before the expansion and its first sentence, as quoted earlier:
Mr. Martin and his oldest son, Baxter, came forward to hold the box steady on the stool while Mr. Summers stirred up the papers inside it. The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago...
Just as skillfully, in a kind of sandwich with the same characters, after the box’s history, Jackson picks up the story’s action. Notice her almost exact repetition of the words as in the expansion. Here’s the last line of the sweep and the next of the story:
By now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained. Mr. Martin and his oldest son, Baxter, held the black box securely on the stool until Mr. Summers had stirred the papers thoroughly with his hand.
Jackson uses the expansion here and the minute, repetitive detail before and after it to elongate the action, heighten the tension, and rivet our attention. From the narrower action or narrative, the scene expands naturally and then contracts again back to the main focus, and the story’s forward motion.
Decide on the Scope of Your Expansion
Once you’ve worked out your transitions, decide how long to stay in the expansion. Test it by expanding or reining it in. My story “Casey” centers on an adolescent boy who’s sure he’s a loser. At the start of an early draft, I described how the teachers ignored Casey and lavished attention on his nemesis, Clive, the perfect student. In the process, I got fired up about why the teachers responded so strongly to Clive. This is some of the original passage:
Clive was the student they were sure would still appear, even after years of slogging through grade books and writing parents never-delivered notes. Clive was the student who made worthwhile their initial desire to become a teacher, even when they were all but drowning in mountains of paperwork and endless staff meetings and seriously considering quitting two years before retirement, no longer caring about their pension.
After several drafts, I realized this story could easily veer off into the plight of frustrated teachers and the deficient educational system. So (with great regret) I cut out a thousand words and reduced the “teacher” passage to one that centered on Clive. Here’s the revised version:
Like his mother, Casey’s teachers seemed to look on Clive as almost a religious figure. Through the dark years of blank-faced children, their faces blurred with stupid sameness, Clive appeared, a comet in the black. Casey saw how the teachers’ faces lit up when Clive raised his hand, how they called on him too quickly, knowing they’d be saved from another of the class’s noisy rebellions and the embarrassing visit from the principal.
Even a brief expansion, done well, can evoke just the span of the story you envision. Science-fiction and fantasy writers are known for their opening sweeps—time continuums, light years, far galaxies, alien species. Here is Ray Bradbury’s masterful opening sweep in “All Summer in a Day”:
It had been raining for seven years; thousands upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain ... A thousand forests had been crushed under the rain and grown up a thousand times to be crushed again. And this was the way of life forever on the planet Venus, and this was the schoolroom of the children of the rocket men and women who had come to a raining world to set up civilization and live out their lives.
Such an expansion instantly involves and intrigues us and conveys the story’s flavor.
Deciding on the length of your expansion is largely a matter of aesthetic judgment and distance. First, write your heart out. Then obey an essential rule of good and let it sit. When you do, go clean out the garage, and come back, you’ll see the story with new eyes and aesthetic sensibility.
If the expansion now seems too short, you may not have given enough context for the main character’s later actions. If the expansion is too long, readers may lose patience or become confused about your point, as in my pre-excised “Casey” draft.
You can also test the expansion by showing your story to someone you trust and watching the responses. A suddenly furrowed brow = the sweep is too short. Suppressed sighs or outright yawns = it’s too long.
Help for Your Expansion
These suggestions will help you reduce any lingering fears and guide you into expansive writing adventures.
- Decide once and for all that you don’t have to be bound by the standard definitions, limitations, or confines imposed on the short story.
- Give yourself permission to think and visualize on a broader, larger scale.
- Consider the “history” of your characters—their family, their living situation, the events that surround them, their country, era, planet, personal growth (or lack of it).
- Ask yourself, Why do I want my characters in a larger context? (If the answer is that you don’t, you have no need for expansion in this particular story.)
- Ask yourself, How will the expansive context make more dramatic, poignant, or meaningful my story’s theme, conflict, or resolution?
- Visualize a movie camera panning toward the main action of your story. You’re the director. Where will you first focus your lens?
- Now, write what comes to you, censoring nothing, whatever the length.
- Let it sit, then go back to it, and start editing.
Understanding the expansion frees you from limiting your stories to single circumscribed subjects and extends your repertoire of narrative techniques. Observe how other writers use expansion. With familiarity, you won’t rule out any subject, scene, or setting as too big or broad. Your work will gain breadth and richness you may not have thought possible in the short story form. And you'll attract more readers eager for your next short story.