A QUICK NOTE: Hello, everyone. I apologize that it has taken me so long to add anything new to the website. I will attempt to add more content more regularly in the future. However, I did recently get the chance to at least finish this blog, so without further ado, let’s break down the essence of a short story.
Short stories can come from amateurs or professionals, but they are typically a practical and excellent way for beginner writers to start out. However, it’s important for any writers experimenting with this to understand the truth behind a common myth: that just because short stories are shorter than novellas or novels, it doesn’t necessarily make them easier.
“It takes considerable skill, discipline, and practice to write an exceptional short story that both covers and condenses the essential elements of fiction into a significantly smaller space,” freelance editor and writer Jennifer D. Foster explains in her article “Anatomy of a Successful Short Story.”
(Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes featured in this blog are from the article listed above. See reference citation below.)
“Master storyteller Edgar Allan Poe described a short story as a piece that can be read in one sitting, allowing the reader to enjoy an uninterrupted, fully realized, indelible experience with fiction,” she continues.
This is because nearly all the same elements in a book must be present in a short story, but cannot run as long. There must be plot development, at least one interesting character (and, in that case, the character the story encompasses), believable and exciting conflict, and a creative, well-paced resolution.
Let me give an example. In Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder, explorers go back in time to hunt dinosaurs. However, one of them strays off of a designated path meant to keep everyone from interacting with the environment, and the subsequent consequence is it changes everything in the present. In the story, Bradbury explains the issues associated with literally straying off the path, and what happens when that rule is violated.
Of course, since short stories simply don’t have the space to draw out all the elements, there is a certain tone, so to speak, that the short story takes on. For example, short stories won’t waste time and words giving a lot of background for the conflict, characters, etc. They will start oftentimes in the middle of the action and depend on an action-reaction framework to explain everything while still keeping it fresh and engaging. Not that there isn’t necessarily any exposition in a short story; it really depends on how much is going on and what the pace is for the story itself. Some keep the action going throughout, so it feels exciting, but it also feels over so quickly (and sometimes is). Others spend time building up to the main climax and then let the action of the conflict play out to the end.
Author Nina Munteanu puts it this way, saying the short story is “a metaphoric event, a moment in time. It’s a single place-a crossroad-compared with the landscape of a novel.”1
Novelist, short-story author and writing instructor Terence M. Green says, “The short story has a specific focus. It should be tight, dense…read in one sitting, and the final impact should resonate fully upon completion. The novel can meander, digress, explore. Not so with the short story.”1
To show an example of short but complete explanation in a short story, take a look at this excerpt from O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi:
“Della finished her crying and cleaned the marks of it from her face. She stood by the window and looked out with no interest. Tomorrow would be Christmas day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a gift. She had put aside as much as she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week is not much. Everything had cost more than she had expected. It always happened like that.”
It doesn’t take much for us to put together the basic pieces of the story here. In one paragraph, we are introduced to two characters in the story, as well as the crisis one of them is facing and the reasons for it. A novel, by comparison, probably would have pieced together the same information over several pages, if not several chapters.
However, there are common denominators with any story, short or long. We’ll go through each of them here briefly and describe the key factors that separate a short story from a longer work:
The theme of a story is usually somewhat broad, but, as writer Sharon Sorenson says, a short story “is a specific example of the theme (emphasis in original).” 1 Short stories have to be more narrowly defined, and short story authors often achieve this by putting two or more of their characters in conflict with one another and then showing the result of that conflict. 1
Nina Munteanu says this about the theme: “Every good story explores a theme. In a short story, it is a single theme told as a ‘statement’ rather than a novel’s ‘argument.'”1 And according to Sorenson, this theme is often implied rather than explicitly stated.1
And according to Sorenson, this theme is often implied rather than explicitly stated.1
Therefore, since the theme is so central to the story, make it strong. Turn it into something the readers can learn to care about in one sitting.
Short story writer and editor Andrew J. Borkowski sums up the art of the practice well: “Writing a short story is like skipping a stone across the water. You’re setting off ripples, reverberations that suggest a feeling or a meaning far deeper than the words themselves express. In a novel you spell things out. You have to in order to keep the reader with you.”1
We all know what conflict is, and us avid readers (and writers) know it’s one of the biggest things that will determine whether or not we continue with the story. A weak conflict is no conflict. And what type of conflict you determine for your story could make all the difference in that regard.
When it comes to conflict, there are basically two main types:
INTERNAL: These are often deeply emotional issues, either taking root from within the protagonist(s), or at the very least with an idea or concept that is very important to said protagonist(s). These kinds of conflicts can include, “guilt, sorrow, indecision, and depression” 1.
EXTERNAL: These are problems taking place outside of the character(s’) conscious and/or subconscious mind(s). These can include environmental problems (like natural disasters of some sort), war, or an intense battle (whether literal, figurative, or some combination thereof) with the antagonist(s).
The main difference between what this will look like in a short story as opposed to a novel, according to English and communications instructor Susan Hesemeier, is that “there are fewer conflicts that lead to one climax; in a novel, a series of smaller conflicts and climaxes lead to or connect with a larger overall conflict and climax.”
Okay, definitely another important element in any story. As with conflict, a weak plot might as well be no plot at all. Without a good, engaging plot, there can’t be any proper plot development, and therefore your story doesn’t end up moving past the starting line. If you want to make it to the finish, you have to run hard and fast for a certain period of time, your muscles have to burn, your body must sweat, and your throat has to feel dry before you reach the end. And once you get there, you can feel the sweet satisfaction of having run through and finished the race.
Why am I using this analogy? Because developing a good plot involves a lot of steps that are of the same nature. Like a runner going from point A to point B, plots always have to be moving until the story itself ends. The plot also has to weave into the conflict(s), and working out the resolution(s) is what will result in the story’s “burning muscles”, “sweaty body”, and “dry throat.” The sweet satisfaction that comes at the end is what happens when the resolution finally works itself out and the story comes to a close.
Sorenson explains the following elements of the plot:
EXPOSITION: “introduces characters and setting, establishes point of view, and provides background information.” The runner is coming up to the starting point and positioning himself properly for his journey ahead.
OPENING INCIDENT: “leads the main character to a conflict and begins the plot.” The athlete is running through the first part of the race, and hasn’t experienced any physical challenges yet.
RISING ACTION: “builds the conflict and adds new, more complicated incidents, leading to the climax.” The runner’s muscles are beginning to feel a little sore, he is working up a little sweat, and to add to things, one of his opponents is beginning to get a small lead on him.
CLIMAX: “intense conflict, which changes the course of events or the way the reader understands the story, either through an event or an insight.” The runner’s physical pain is intensifying as he struggles to catch up with his opponents and, to make things worse, the course has several hurdles to jump over.
FALLING ACTION: “though not always used, it reduces conflict, preparing the reader for the resolution.” The runner, through much determination and struggle, has made it over the hurdles and is in the home stretch of the race.
RESOLUTION: “ends the conflict and leaves the reader satisfied.” The runner gains an edge on his opponent at the last minute and finishes in first place.
There is actually a fair bit of disagreement on how plots unfold and/or present themselves when it comes to short stories. Some say that the plot reveals itself in a series of layers, utilizing things like character, dialogue, conflict, and setting. Others say the best short stories involve two subplots working in unison to expose the central part of the story. And yet others say that plot itself isn’t really necessary as long as there is a main point.1 Whatever the case may be for your particular short story, it is still important to keep these elements in mind, because any good story still needs proper development. Even if you’re not planning to run the race like everyone else, you still have to run it if you want to reach the end.
Major (“round”) and minor (“flat”) characters make their appearances in every story, and their particular individualities, from their strengths and weaknesses to the specific conflict(s) they have to face, are what allow us readers to connect with them.
“Believable, motivated characters make or break a story,” Sorenson states. “If readers cannot understand or accept them, nothing else you do matters. Why? The actions of your characters convey theme.”
A short story tends to “take the character(s) through a smaller psychological arc,” according to author and fiction editor Margot Livesey, while still allowing us to “see briefly and incisively into the character’s psyche.”
The setting of a story, of course, is the main location and/or context in which the story takes place. It is vitally important, as with any other element in a good story, to have a well-developed setting. If readers don’t know what’s going on in the background of the events taking place, they’ll end up feeling lost and may even miss out on a huge crisis in the plot (perhaps even the main conflict itself!). This is because “characters and action [usually between the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s)] should interact with the setting,” according to Sorenson.
Munteanu explains that for the short story, the “plot, setting, and character[s] are often portrayed through strong metaphor, the short story writer’s major tool. Metaphor conveys so much more than the surface narrative might suggest; this is because metaphor by its very nature resonates with deeper truths, interpreted individually by members of a culture.”
POINT OF VIEW
The point of view is the perspective from which a story is written. First person POV is narration from the personal perspective of one or two main characters, and we get to hear it as that person(s) might tell it to us in real life, utilizing “I”, “me,” “my,” and so on. Second person POV is rather rare in stories, but it tells us what we are supposed to be experiencing from our own point of view: “You are walking into a room when you see…” And finally, last but not least is the third person POV. There are two main types of third person POV: third person omniscient, which features a narrator who knows everything, including what each of the characters is thinking and when. Third person limited, on the other hand, typically includes only the perspective of one main character.
When it comes to short stories, third person (of both types) is the most common. But whatever POV you choose, it must “lie at the heart of the short story,” Livesey explains. “The choice of point of view determines the story to be told.”
Borkowski says, “Once you start wanting to explore the inner lives of multiple characters, you’re on your way to something bigger than a short story.”
TONE AND STYLE
According to Sorenson, “Tone results from the narrator’s attitude…and point of view. From the story’s tone, readers can make inferences about characters and plot.”
Borkowski informs us that “tone and style are what the short story is all about. These are your most important tools in suggesting themes and levels of meaning that can’t be spelled out within the parameters of the short story.”
In other words, the power of suggestion is your friend. It is this way whether you are writing a short story or a long one. Taking time to write out everything with lengthy exposition will bore your readers and make them put down your work (and likely never pick anything up by you again). Exposition in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it has to be used in moderation, especially in a short story. Your readers aren’t dumb, so don’t assume so off the bat. Input some clues and let them fill in the blanks. Trust me, they’ll thank you for it.
BREAKING IT DOWN: THE DO’S AND DON’T’S OF SHORT STORIES:
DO: “A great short story leaves you feeling you’ve experienced ten times more than what’s actually described on the page.”–Borkowski
DON’T: Drift due to “speed bumps or pot holes,” resulting from “typos to improper punctuation to a character acting out of character.” –Kevin Watson, founder of Press 53
DO: Make your characters and setting authentic, and make every word do its own work. —Author J. Madison Davis
DON’T: Make your characters overly predictable and your plot unbelievable. –Livesey
DO: “Tell the story by showing [it] to the reader, by allowing the reader to enter the world of the characters and walk beside them and witness the story as it unfolds.”–Watson
DON’T: Oversimplify. “Life is not simple. People are not simple. Your short story should not be simple.” –Novelist Terence M. Green
DO: “What I want in a short story is an arresting narrative voice. If the voice is right, the rest will often fall into place: a clearly defined style, an economy of language, and fresh subject matter.” –Editor Steve Woodward
Suggest. Deepen. Interact. Focus. Have fun.
Embrace your writer’s side, and let the words of your imagination run free.
Foster, Jennifer D. (Year unknown). “Anatomy of a Successful Short Story.” In Scott Francis (Ed.) 2013 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (pp. 6-13). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2012.