Compression and Expansion in the Short Story

I heard Hilma Wolitzer say once that writing a novel was easy; you just brought in all the family. Her point was that the form of the novel invites a larger world than that of the short story. The novel makes room for a large cast of characters and events as well as a broad stretch of time. This isn’t to say that the novel always expands, nor is this to say that the short story always restricts. I do, believe, though, that the short story often depends on compression for its power. And yet, the short story must be layered in some way so it has the texture of a lived life. The question, then, is how do short story writers condense human experience while also expressing the depth of that experience?

It seems to me that a story usually operates by paying attention to a single sequence of dramatic events that are often causally connected. A main character acts, and that action creates a consequence that requires further action. The writer stretches this narrative thread out as long as it can maintain a certain degree of tension. The writer increases the pressure on the character, via his or her own actions, to the snapping point—to the moment of the story where nothing more can be said about the central tension of the plot and where something submerged in the character rises to the surface.

We’re wise if we challenge ourselves to think in terms of opposites. That’s one way short story writers bring out the depth of their characters’ experiences even while concentrating on a single narrative thread. A woman, Anna Sergeyevna, catches the eye of a man, Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, in Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog.” Gurov has been unfaithful to his wife often over a period of years, and he sets out to make Anna his latest conquest. Complications arise when, back home with his wife, he finds he can’t stop thinking about Anna: “In the past he had met women, come together with them, parted from them, but he had never once loved; it was anything you please, but not love.” And love is indeed what rises in Gurov, the opposite of what he expected when he first took note of Anna, a surprising, and yet believable aspect of his character. This same love rises in Anna:

Anna Sergeyevna and he loved each other as people do who are very close and intimate, like man and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that Fate itself had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband; and it was as though they were a pair of migratory birds, male and female, caught and forced to live in different cages. They forgave each other what they were ashamed of in their past, they forgave everything in the present, and felt that this love of theirs had altered them both.

The story ends, then, at a moment, when Dmitry breaks down in the face of how difficult it will be for the two of them. He is caught up in this great love:

Formerly in moments of sadness he had soothed himself with whatever logical arguments came into his head, but now he no longer cared for logic; he felt profound compassion, he wanted to be sincere and tender.

This desire for sincerity and tenderness that emerges at the end of the story is so different from what we expected in the opening that it catches us by surprise and speaks to us in a profound way about the complexities of the love that he and Anna share. When we begin reading the story, we may be tempted to think we’re reading another story about infidelity. By the end, though, we understand that we’re reading a story about the complexities of the human heart.

To allow the full expression of a central story line, we often need other lines vibrating against it. These other lines dramatize what the main characters are carrying with them into the main narrative thread. In the Chekhov story, once Dmitry is back home with his family, we have the particulars of his life in Moscow, a life he thinks of as “stupid” and “humdrum.” Eventually he runs into Anna and her husband at the opera, and Chekhov, with small brushstrokes paints a portrait of the husband. In the process he suggests the sort of dissatisfying life that Anna has with him:

Probably this was the husband whom at Yalta, in an access of bitter feeling, she had called a flunkey. And there really was in his lanky figure, his side-whiskers, his small bald patch, something of a flunkey’s retiring manner; his smile was mawkish, and in his buttonhole there was an academic badge like a waiter’s number.

Notice the precision of the details that Chekhov chooses and how much work those details do to enhance the texture of Anna’s life. Two strings, then, vibrate against the main story line of Anna and Dmitry. The particulars of each of their lives add depth and texture to this narrative of infidelity that turns into sincere and tender love that still faces its difficult days:

And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far off, and that what was to be most complicated and difficult for them was only just beginning.

Here at the end, Chekhov teaches us something about the short story form. The narrative approaches resolution—Anna and Dmitry will think of ways to be together—but it doesn’t resolve itself completely. It ends with an understanding that there will be much difficulty ahead for them. In order for a story to have both compression and expansion, it must find a way to let the tensions of the plot and the revelations of characters to come to this point where something closes while also opening up.


  1. Lamar Williams on June 6, 2020 at 7:21 pm

    Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on June 7, 2020 at 3:32 pm

      Thank you, Lamar, for taking the time to ready my blog.

  2. Lorraine Seal on August 13, 2020 at 9:42 am

    Thank you for this essay. It’s given me some insight into a problem I’m trying to solve in a story just now. I found your blog through a reference to it in an essay by William Wall.

    • Lee Martin on August 13, 2020 at 10:25 am

      Lorraine, I’m so glad that I was able to be of help. Thank you so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave this comment. I wasn’t aware of the essay by William Wall that references my blog. Is it available online somewhere?

  3. Ben Iverson on December 15, 2020 at 1:06 pm

    I add my thanks. It feels like a little miracle that I found this essay. For one thing, I know the Chekhov story well, so I can grasp the lessons of it more readily when you bring them to the fore. But also, I think a failure to perceive the necessity for, and the mechanisms of, compression are really a major problem for me.

    Early drafts, of course, cannot be compressed. You have to have something to compress first! And that is the longer first draft.

    Paradoxically though, if a long first draft makes compression possible, its also what makes it so painful. You have to kill your darlings, tossing whole passages in the waste basket. And then you have to make so many minute calculations, so that the compressed version can still render up the best moments of the long version. It’s no longer sheer creative invention either, which is intuitive and joyful and free. Now its perfection and polish; slogging through a to-do list that grows cruelly longer each time you complete one of the items!

    Lord help us all…;)

    • Lee Martin on December 17, 2020 at 12:29 pm

      Ben, thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave these astute comments about the writing process. It’s good to have you in the conversation! Keep doing the good work!

  4. Tim White on February 12, 2023 at 12:22 am

    ‘To allow the full expression of a central story line, we often need other lines vibrating against it. These other lines dramatize what the main characters are carrying with them into the main narrative thread’ what a beautifully clear way of expressing the complexities and tensions needed in the short story. Thank you

    • Lee Martin on February 13, 2023 at 11:02 am

      Thank you for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave this comment.

  5. Mary G. on March 14, 2024 at 3:25 pm

    This is such an excellent piece–I don’t remember how I came across it, but I’m glad I did. Your definition of a story (“It seems to me that a story…”) is among the best definitions I’ve read. And your analysis of Chekhov’s story also made me so happy. “something closes while opening up.” That’s exactly it.

    • Lee Martin on March 16, 2024 at 11:12 am

      Thank you so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave this comment.

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