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The Short Story

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January 2010
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What makes a short story? There are many definitions of a short story.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “a short story is a short piece of prose fiction having few characters and aiming at unity of effect.”

Many people base their definition of a short story on Aristotle’s view that a story must have a beginning, middle, and end.

Edgar Allen Poe suggested that a short story can be read in one sitting and achieve a “single effect.”

Others believe that a short story involves a protagonist who experiences a conflict, which leads to a crisis, and ends with resolution.

Some believe that a short story need not contain any identifiable components, such as a protagonist, conflict, climax, change, or epiphany.

There is still a great deal of debate about the question.

Attributes of a Short Story

All short stories have certain characteristics. A short story is a work of fiction. It is less than 20,000 words and can usually be read in one sitting.

Each word of the story should contribute the whole. In other words, each word needs to move the story forward to its conclusion.

The writer tells the story from a single point of view.

Most short stories include a protagonist, who is the central character in the story. A short story can include one or more secondary characters. But there must be a limited number of characters.

All short stories include a plot or series of events–often just a single event–that make up the story.

All short stories include a setting, such as the time and place in which the story takes place. Some stories also include the social or historical context.

Structure of the Short Story

Some stories use the conflict-climax-resolution model. Includes a conflict, climax, and resolution; conflict-crisis-resolution model doesn’t work for all short stories.

Some believe that every short story has a conflict which intensifies and culminates in a crisis. Some stories use the five stage model: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution.

In many short stories, the protagonist undergoes some sort of epiphany or insight or revelation. Yet, there is no rule that says this must occur.

Stories can have a linear or modular structure. Linear stories follow the conflict-climax-resolution model. Modular stories are made up of component parts. Is change necessary? In other words, must a character discover some truth and then act upon it?

Sometimes protagonist undergoes change and sometimes the protagonist doesn’t. Change isn’t a necessary element of a short story. The protagonist can decline the opportunity to change.

Effect on the Reader

A good short story should engage the reader and pique the reader’s interest. A memorable short story astonishes or moves the reader. A good short story also has closure. When the story ends, the reader understands why.

Final Thoughts

There are no set rules in writing short fiction, only conventions. The writer can break the rules. One of the best ways to write a short story is to begin writing it, taking into account the attributes of a short story as you write.

Most good short stories require a protagonist and conflict. Many good short stories include a protagonist who experiences conflict. Others include an epiphany or insight. A good short story is from a few pages to less than 20,000 words. It also must be interesting. In other words, the reader must be motivated to turn the page. And finally, the story must have closure. When the story is finished, the reader must know why.



If you want to read good short stories, even a few memorable ones, check out the following:



  1. Just wanted to say I enjoyed the article. It has a lot of good points. I liked how you included the definition of what a short story is from a number of different perspectives. Check out my creative writing blog at if you get the chance. I have some writing tips as well as a short story and some prose poetry.

  2. Writer94 says:

    Thisis a great definition of short story

  3. I think you’re right when you say there are lots of dfferent opinions of what a short story is. But what makes a short story enjoyable and what makes you want to read more stories by the same writer. Have a look at my blog – I’d appreciate any feedback:-)

  4. My favorite form of writing – thank you for sharing!

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