- A completely focused mood piece. Think of some of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, capturing what it feels like to have your first girlfriend break up with you, or to be stuck with insomnia thinking about death. Other examples: Stephen King’s most excellent stories in Skeleton Crew and Night Shift.In short, I see a short story as a more informal, concentrated taste of story telling. Potentially containing the possibility of something that could be explored further, but not necessarily. (Of course, I've always been attracted to flaws more that perfection - I wrote a bit about this over here.)
- Pondering an idea. Perhaps done best in SciFi, these short stories present an interesting idea and the consequences of that idea. Philip K Dick was the best at this; he’d present an interesting idea that might not hold up over the course of a novel and explore it in a short story. (Note that both Total Recall and Minority Report were adapted from PKD short stories, not novels.)
- Experimenting with form, voice, etc. Authors just fucking around to see what works.
I also think that there are authors that are better at novels and those that are better at short stories (and the rare few, like Stephen King, that are good at both). For instance, I love Haruki Murakami, but (after the quake excepted) his short stories are awful - he needs the space of the novel to present his themes and wandering narrators. I wonder if Ondaatje is one of this authors whose writing favors the novelistic form?
(Cross Posted at Reading, Running & Red Sox)