Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Technical Aspects of Short Story

Dr. Poranki Dakshinamurty

The Technical Aspects of Short Story *

Every speech community has its stories to tell. It is an age-old practice or interest passed on from one generation to the other. After a writing system is acquired and developed, the oral narrative is supplemented by written narrative. Each tradition has developed in its own way. We are fortunate to have kept the oral tradition still alive. Both the traditions live side by side, influencing and enriching each other, without losing their own primary characteristics.

As is evident in every activity of life, some persons are more skillful in narrating stories. They evolve certain ways and methods in their narration to impress the listeners. Such skillful narrators of stories, like our grandmothers, are there in our homes engaging small children, either to entertain or to lull them to sleep. Several communities are there in Andhra Pradesh which have developed the pleasant art of narrating stories, either in prose or in ballads, (like baalanaagamma katha, kaambhoojaraju katha, palnaati yuddham katha etc. in Telugu).

They narrate, sometimes awe-inspiring stories, sometimes heroic tales of a protagonist or tragic circumstances faced by a helpless woman or a child and the like. The narrators keep the audience spell-bound for hours together, starting the programme at about         9 P. M. and finishing by the dawn of the next day. People do not lose interest in listening to the same old stories again and again.

The narrator is found fully immersed in his narration, creating enthralling situations and episodes of life, with and around his characters. The narrator uses accompaniments also (like tambuura, castanets etc.) to enhance the effect of his narration. The listeners identify themselves with the characters in the story. Sometimes they become hilarious; sometimes serious or wrathful till their blood boils. When an unfortunate or dangerous situation arises in the story, they shed tears. The entire audience of the village is collectively transported to an uncontrollable emotional state created by the skill of the narrator, right in their presence. Thus, we find that the success of a narrative depends on the skill of the narrator in handling his theme, as of a grandmother of the household or a professional narrator. That means, the skill is the technique and it has several aspects.

It is interesting to note that one of the folktales which is most popular among the Telugu children, contains prasnoot- taramaalikaa kathana silpam (interrogative narrative technique or a cause and effect technique). The story is called endani chepa katha (The Story of an Unbaked Fish) also known as eeduchepala katha (The Story of Seven Fish). It runs like this:

Once upon a time, there was a king. The king had seven sons. All the seven sons went on hunting and brought seven fish. They put all the fish in the sun. One of those fish did not become sun-baked. “O fish! O fish! Why are you not sun-baked?” “O tuft of grass has cast a shadow.” “O tuft! O tuft! Why did you cast a shadow?” “The cow did not graze.” “O cow! O cow! Why did you not graze?” “The cowherd did not tend me to graze.” “O cowherd! O cowherd! Why did you not tend the cow to graze?” “The Mother [Mistress of the household] did not pour gruel [for me]. “O Mother! O Mother! Why did you not pour gruel?” “My son is crying.” “O child! O child! Why are you crying?” “An ant has pricked me.” “O ant! O ant! Why did you prick [my child]?” “Why don’t I prick when a finger is put in my golden [home of a] hole?”

The first five lines form an opening. The rest of the lines contain questions and answers. Every occurrence has a cause and each one throws blame (cause) on another. The story, in the conversational part, begins with an effect and ends with a cause. In a reversal order of the events, a flash , the story unwinds gradually.

‘In all folk narratives, the essential technique of narration (i.e. depicting the events in a certain imaginative and psychological order in time) is invariably found. ‘A close look at ancient literature may reveal narrative patterns that will give modern creative writers hints on how to revitalize their art.’

Seeing the usefulness of this interrogative narrative technique, I adopted it, some four decades ago, in one of my stories, kaarappuusa potlam, written in a satirical way with a small story within the main story, like a box kept in a bigger box dealing with the life of drudgery of a proof-reader employed in a private printing press. The small story, like the ‘Story of an Unbaked Fish’ runs in probing reasons for several mistakes that have crept into a Telugu Medium text-book. As the ant gives its reason for pricking the finger of a child, the English Medium of Instruction, personified, blames the Telugu Medium for all the errors printed in the text-book.

There are two more techniques of Telugu folktales, worth mentioning in this context. One is ‘The Technique of Chain of Rejections or Negations’ (like neeti neetivaada, ‘Not This-Not This’ Theory), found in ‘kaalilo mullu gucchukunna koti katha (The Story of a Monkey into whose foot a thorn has penetrated). Another one is ‘The Technique of Self-searching’ (like aatmaan-veeshanapara Silpam) found in ‘peru marichina iiga katha’ (The Story of a Fly who forgot her name).

Apart from these folktales, we find several stories or their motifs in the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and Kaavyas. They are borrowed from the Sanskrit originals and are retold in Telugu. Special mention has to be made of Brhatkatha (also called ‘Badda Kathaa’) of Gunadhya, a court poet of a Satavahana or Salivahana king of Andhra Dynasty of Emperors. Around the 1st century A.D., Gunadhya is said to have composed his work in verse, in Paisachi Language. Some part of the work was burnt by Gunadhya himself, out of frustration. The rescued part contained many interesting and instructive stories. The stories of Pancatantra and Hitopadesa are believed to have had their source in Brhatkatha.

Somadeva of the 11th century A.D. had composed his poetic work ‘Kathasarit-saagara’, basing on Brhatkatha. In that book, he had mentioned several aspects of stories using at least 17 epithets, which are collected by Prof. Nalini Sadhale and quoted in her monograph, ‘Katha in Sanskrit Poetics’ (pp.55-56):

1. Ramya katha should be pleasing to the mind.
2. Hrdya  It should touch one’s heart.
3. Harini  It should be captivating and the listener should be carried away.
4. Citra It should have the brilliance of content and striking expression.
5. Udara  It should have richness of import.
6. Vicitratha It should not be monotonous and therefore should have an element of variety.
7. Arthya  It should be purposeful.
8. Apurva; Nutana It should be fresh.
9. Swalpa  It can be short and yet quite delighting to the heart.
10. Mahakatha It can also be long and can have manifold interests.
11. Divya  A supernatural element can make it attractive.
12. Vinodini It should have entertaining qualities.
13. Siksavati It can instruct even as it entertains.
14. Buddhivibhavasampanna  It should have the strength of intellect to enrich its import.
15. Rucira  It should be interesting.
16. Adbhutavicitrartharucira The depiction of wonder adds to its variety and makes it more interesting.
17. Mugdhavisaya It can have a ‘fool’ for the subject.

Among the Sanskrit poets, Dandi (8th century A.D.), in his ‘Kavyadarsa’, had mentioned katha in his classification of prose literature (gadya), but he did not give any definite characteristic of katha. Rudrata (9th century A.D.) in his ‘Kavyalankara’, mentioned khandakatha under the minor (laghu) group of utpadya and anutpadya prabandhas (literary works). His description of mahakatha and laghukatha is an evidence to say that he had Bana’s ‘Kadambari’ and Somadeva’s ‘Kathasaritsagara’, respectively, in his view.

Anandavardhana (9th century A.D.), the author of ‘Dhvanyaloka’ had mentioned some types of stories like parikatha, khandakatha, sakalakatha, sargabandha, akhyayika, katha etc. At no stage, he was known to have equated katha (story) with gadya (prose). Mammata (11th century A.D.), who wrote ‘Kavyaprakasa’, had referred to akhyayika and katha, in respect of the propriety of composition of words, following Anandavardhana. But there was no discussion on the subject. The ‘Kavyanusasanam’ of Hemacandra (11-12th century A.D.) treated the subject of katha in considerable detail. His important contribution was his treatment of several sub-varieties of katha, viz., ‘akhyana, nidarsana, pravahlika, matallika (or mantallika), manikulya, parikatha, khandakatha, upakatha, and brhatkatha. Although the names of parikatha, khandakatha and sakalakatha are the same as are found in Anandavardhana’s work or in Agnipuranam, the definitions are quite different in Kavyanusasanam. It is to be noted that Brhatkatha is treated as a common noun and the example cited for it is ‘Naravahanadatta charitra’.

Viswanatha Kaviraja (14th century A.D.) in his ‘Sahityadarpana’, had said that the theme (vastu) in katha is full of rasa or sentiment (kathaayaam sarasam vastu). A few chapters of ‘Agnipuranam’ had dealt with topics related to poetics. Five vareties of narrative literature were discussed in this purana (aakhyaayikaa, kathaa, khandakathaa, parikathaa tatha kathaanikeeti manyantee gadyakaavam ca pancadhaa. - Chapter 337.12)

The first four were mentioned and discussed by Anandavardhana. Sakalakatha, which was mentioned by him is not found in Agnipuranam. But ‘Kathaanikaa’ is a new addition, not found elsewhere. The author of Agnipuranam calls the above five, as varieties of gadyakaavya (prose work of literature). The characteristics of the hero (a minister, a merchant or a brahmin) and the chief sentiments to be depicted (karuna and vipralambha) are said to be common to khandakatha and parikatha. As far as special features are concerned, khandakatha is not complete in itself but linked with another story. Parikatha is considered as a mixture of akhyayika and katha.

Perhaps for the first time in the world, Agnipuranam has given a clear-cut definition of short story, saying: “Bhayaanakam sukhaparam garbhee ca karunoo rasah / adbhutoo’ntee suklptaarthaa noodaattaa saa kathaanikaa.” (Chapter 337.20). Kathaanika (short story) consists of three sentiments (rasas), viz., ‘bhayaanaka’ (terror) in the beginning, ‘karuna’ (pathos) in the middle and ‘adbhuta’ (wonder) coming at the end. These are internal characteristics. The story is not very lengthy or heavily loaded with high sounding words and phrases and descriptions. It is light and brief in its import. These are external features. The three sentiments mentioned above may not be present in the contemporary short story in the same order or may not be present at all wholly or partially. But external features do apply. The name of the genre ‘Kathaanika’ is also found useful, better than the compound word ‘chinna (short) katha (story)’, and worth preserving for the benefit of future generations. Every kathaanika is a katha but not every katha a kathaanika.

In the 19th century, Indian writers and scholars came into contact with western literature through English. By its influence, Indian writers took interest in enriching their literary writings. Even in England and America, in 1880s, a lively interest was created for writing fiction. Brander Matthews emphasizing the fact that, ‘the shortstory, properly and technically so called, is a distinct department of literary art,’ had published an anonymous letter in the ‘Saturday Review’ magazine. Enlarging that letter, the next year (in 1885), he published an article, entitled ‘The Philosophy of Short-Story’. It was included in his collection of essays, by name ‘Pen and Ink’ published in the same year. Matthews was preceded by Edgar Allen Poe, who had discussed the characteristics of short story, in his review of the ‘Twice-Told Tales’ of Hawthorn, published in the April and May issues of the ‘Graham’s Magazine’ in 1842. With the help of the following table we can compare the characteristics of short story proposed or identified by the three persons.

Author of Agnipuranam Edgar Allen Poe (1842) Brander Matthews (1885)
1. Brevity 2. Lacking heaviness –anudaattata 3. Bhayaanaka rasa in the beginning 4. Karuna rasa in the middle. 5. Adbhuta rasa in the ending 

1.Unity of Impression 2. Brevity-enabling to finish reading within half an hour to two hours.          

1. Originality 2. Unity 3. Compression 4. Brilliancy of Style 5. Action 6. Form 7. Substance, and  8. If possible,  Fantasy.

When we observe the above characteristics we can understand the following points:

i) Brevity is the common element in all the three columns. Hence there is complete unanimity.
ii) Time duration in reading the story, proposed by Poe is not tenable. There are many many stories which do not require even thirty minutes to read.
iii) Lack of heaviness (anudaattata) in the theme, style of language and descriptions.
iv) The order of the three sentiments proposed by the author of the Purana does not seem to be acceptable or known to others.
v) Sentiment of wonder (adbhuta) in the ending certainly thrills the reader. It needs to occur naturally, but not artificially.
vi) In the opinion of Poe, the internal idea of the story should only be one. A single incident, a single character or a single situation gives a unity of impression.
vii) The rest of the points mentioned by Matthews are indeed useful, but not specified by others.

By this we can understand that there was no difference of opinion among the scholars on the basic elements of short story, from the times of Agnipuranam to the present day. Some points are clearly stated and some are implied. The presence of only three sentiments (rasas) and in the same order cannot be expected in a modern short story, whether it is Indian or Western. Hence, the presenter of this paper gives the following definition of short story ‘eekaamsavyagramayi svayam-samagramayina kathaatmaka vacana prakriya kathaanika’. That means, the short story is a form of prose fiction that has only one theme or point of prominence and that is self­contained.
The Three Dimensional Analysis of Short Story
A careful study of short story shows us three dimensions in it–thematic, formatic or formational and technical. The thematic dimension consists of four aspects - (i) ‘Kathaabiija’ (the germinal idea which prompts us to think of a theme, like the great pleasure expressed by a student when he was helped to reach the examination hall in time, as in the story of Rachakonda Viswantha Sastri, ‘Merupu Merisindi’), (ii) ‘Kathaavastu’ (theme; the hope and despair of an unmarried school teacher of an age of 35 years), (iii) ‘itivrtta’ (plot or plan of the story from the beginning to the end and (iv) ‘paramaartha’ (the highest truth or the purpose of the story). Kathaabiija is like a seed that can sprout into a theme. Kathaavastu is like a sprout that can develop into a fully grown tree. Itivrtta is the plot or plan of the theme, from the beginning till the ending, that develops into a full-fledged story. Paramaartha is the ultimate purpose or highest truth it conveys, like a tasty fruit a tree grows, a tender feeling of empathy or sympathy in the heart of a reader towards a person who is deprived of realizing his/her hope. That empathy certainly enlarges our heart and helps us maintain good relations with fellow human beings, as also with all beings.

Formatic or formational dimension is known in its six aspects: (i) ‘ettugada’ (the beginning of the story), (ii) ‘nadaka’ (its motion-progression, regression or digression), (iii) ‘cikku or vishama sthiti’ (crisis), (iv) pattu or paraakaashtha’ (climax), (v) ‘vidupu’ (denouement) and (vi) ‘mugimpu’ (conclusion).

The third one is technical dimension, which can be studied in five aspects: (i) ‘paatra’ (character), (ii) ‘sanghatana’ (incident), (iii) ‘sangharshana’ (conflict), (iv) ‘sanniveesam’ (situation) and (v) ‘kathanam’ (narration).
The Technique of Short Story and Its Various Aspects

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines the term ‘Technique’ as, “the manner and ability with which an artist, writer, dancer, athlete, or the like, employs the technical skills of his particular art or field of endevour”. That means, the artistic skill in any work can be called its technique or ‘Silpam’. It can have several ramifications or aspects. Such skill employed in Kathaanika is called ‘Kathaanikaa Silpam’ (Technique of short story).

Palagummi Padmaraju, an eminent Telugu short story writer, poet and critic, who won a prize for his short story ‘Cyclone’ (Gaalivaana) in an International Short Story Writing Competition conducted by the New York Herald Tribune in 1952, had to say these words in respect of the technique of short story: “To decide which thing is to be more prominently depicted is the difficult and important point in the technique of short story. Every sentence, every imagery is to shine brilliantly. Creating surprise is the very life of a short story.” (Translated from his Telugu article on ‘Kathanikaa Silpam’ of 1946).

We cannot say that the ‘technique’ lies only in one part of the story. We find it in any part, from the ‘beginning’ to the ‘ending’ of formatic or formational dimension and from ‘character’ to the ‘narration’ in the technical dimension. It can be classified as follows:

i) The Technique of organizing the theme (vastuvinyaasa Silpam)
ii) The Technique of depicting the character (paatracitrana Silpam)
iii) The Technique of creating an incident (sanghatanaghatanaa Silpam)
iv) The Technique of raising a conflict (sangharshanootpaadana Silpam)
v) The Technique of bringing about a situation (sanniveesakalpanaa Silpam)
vi) The Technique of Narrating (kathanasilpam)
vii) The Technique of Describing (varnana Silpam)
viii) The Technique of Naming the story (Siirshikaa Silpam)

Careful planning and organization of the intended theme in an order and in such a way that all the components put together give a powerful and effective shape to the story, is the technique of organizing the theme.

Physical appearance of a person, his or her intelligence, skill, boldness or timidity, smartness, several positive and negative qualities (saattvika, raajasika and taamasika gunas), tenderness or hardness of heart, the way or ways in which one maintains human relations, one’s hopes and despairs, jealousy and hatred, greed, or avarice, sympathy and consideration for others, selfishness and unselfishness, love or lust, humility or overbearing nature, violence or cultured manner etc. form parts of one’s personality. Bringing them out in a person’s conduct effectively and in the best way possible is the technique of depicting a character.

Attractive and arresting centres in a story are its incidents. They influence the behaviour, actions and reactions of the characters and make the occurrence very effective, for one’s good or bad. The skill shown by the author in developing such circumstances makes the technique of creating an incident.

Conflict arises in the mind of a character or among some characters, between a character and a force of nature or in the various sections of the society. The ingenuity shown by the author in such instances is the technique of raising a conflict.

Creating suitable surroundings or grounds and atmosphere, mental and physical behaviours of characters naturally, purposefully and effectively is the technique of bringing about the situation.

The technique of narration lies in the point of view of the writer, his style of language, his description and his comment. It can be a direct narration or an indirect narration through a character or a situation. Point of view of narration can be of two types: third person narration and first person narration. Third person narration can be either with an ‘absolute’ or ‘limited or partial’ omniscience. In the case of absolute omniscience, there can be two natures: intrusive and unintrusive or impersonal. The interrogative narrative or cause and effect narrative technique, chain of rejections or negations technique or self-searching narrative technique etc. are also different kinds of the narrative technique.

Description is also a part of narration, either direct or indirect. It creates an image of place, of a person and his way of behaviour, favourableness or danger etc. that is appropriate to the situation, position, state of mind of a person etc. showing things, men, matters and behaviours in a lively, suitable and effective manner is the technique of describing.

Giving an attractive name to the story, befitting the theme, character etc. or suggestive of the outcome is also an art, worth mentioning. Many people take interest in reading a story just by the attraction of its title.

All these aspects, when studied carefully, give us a clear understanding of the short story. However, to enjoy reading a story, one has to develop a taste for it. A speaker of a language never learns the grammar in the beginning. He starts speaking by imitating others. In the same way, a writer reads stories in magazines and books, cultivates interest in them and starts writing. He develops his art by practice and study. He enjoys writing and we enjoy reading. Mere theoretical knowledge can not make one a creative writer. But, for a person who has got a creative urge, a thorough knowledge of his subject certainly makes him a better writer; a great one, a greater writer.

* Reference is made to Telugu specially.
*International Symposium on Indian Poetics 10-12 December 2007


A poet casually wrote a song when he was travelling in a railway compartment. He showed it later on to one of his colleagues who disapproved it. In course of time he included it in a novel which was written by him. He never imagined that the poem would make history and would power the minds and charge the batteries of millions of patriots!

The song is Vandemataram. The poet is Bankimchandra Chatterji. He wrote on the 7th of November 1875 on a train journey. The novel is Anandamath written during 1880-82. He died on the 8th of April 1894. He did not live to see the splendour of his poem as the National Song, which will be sung with reverence at the commencement of every meeting in independent India.

Speaking about Bankim Chatterji, Rabindranath Tagore said:  “He has a regal mien.”

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