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Writing Short Stories

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March 2011
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In the splendid textbook, “On Writing Short Stories”, writer Tom Bailey examines in an essay what makes a short story. He suggests that to understand what makes a short story requires that you read dozens and dozens of them. By reading many and varied examples, you can develop an intrinsic sense of what a short story is, so that when you read one, you know what it is. Only by reading short stories will you understand how to write them.

Writing good short stories also requires that you develop an understanding of how writers tell the story and the elements that they adopt to write it.

In this post, I explain the purpose of the short story, provide an overview of the important elements that writers employ to tell short stories. I also list several good reference books that you can read to learn how to write your own short stories. And I list a several good short story anthologies, which provide good examples. 

Purpose of the Short Story

The short story is one of the most popular literary forms for readers. Its purpose is to provide pleasure to the reader and truth about the human condition. How does the reader find pleasure? A good story allows the reader to be transported to an imaginary place in time. It compresses the action of a tale. It encouraged deeper characterization of the protagonist. It often is based on poetic language.

The author of the short story makes the unbelievable believable through the use of vivid descriptions, action scenes, sensory imagery, and dialogue. The reader is able to “suspend disbelief” and enjoy the tale. And so, a good short story provides the reader with aesthetic bliss or pleasure.

How does the short story reveal truth? Short stories make truth tangible and real. This type of literary form is a good way to capture moments of spiritual and psychological transformation in a single event. Some stories have an epiphany, but not all. But the short story does not always attempt to share “great universal insights”, the kinds you discover in philosophy. Instead it attempts to show truth through a single event for the protagonist or central character in the story. In doing so, the short story shares a universal truth about the human condition.

The task of the writer is to tell a story that allows the reader to “suspend disbelief”, and in doing so, provide the reader with a pleasurable or entertaining read, and also share some truth about the human condition. 

Elements of a Short Story

A good short story has many of the same elements as a novel, including:

  • Setting-time and place of the story
  • Inciting incident-the event that starts the story
  • Plot/plot structure-the narrative arc of the story
  • Protagonist-main character in the story
  • Point of view-first person, second person, or third person
  • Theme-main idea of the story
  • Conflict- man versus man, man versus technology, man versus himself/herself, and so forth.

 As well, the writer deploys poetic language to tell his story, such as simile and metaphor and imagery. The writer must also be a good storyteller. In other words, he/she must know how to introduce the inciting incident, create conflict, introduce obstacles and turning point, and resolve the story.

But the short story is different from the novel in many ways. First, it can be read in one sitting, and so it is much shorter. The author tells the story with a limited number of words, less than 20,000. For instance, “Eveline” by James Joyce is only three pages long, and yet it is a complete story.

In terms of setting, the time and place of a short story is limited to a conversation, scene, single event, special occasion, day, few days, and so forth. In short, the short fiction story is a “slice of life.”

As well, the story is told from a single point of view, often the first person (I) or third person (he or she).

Fourthly, there are only a few characters in a short story. In many short stories, there is only the protagonist and one or two secondary characters. Essentially, the writer introduces a “manageable number of character’s”, only enough to tell the story.

Fifthly, a short story tells the reader about one thing, not many things. The writer writes a story about a single event or incident or experience. To find out more, read some of the short stories by Faulkner, Chekhov, or Hemingway.

Sixth, the writer can use lots of dialogue or very little dialogue to tell the tale. For instance, in the short story, “Hills like White Elephants”, Hemingway tells the entire story through dialogue between two people, a man and woman. In “Eveline”, Joyce tells the story with a narrative, and only a few lines of dialogue.

Finally, great short stories make the reader marvel at the author’s ability to tell a complete story in the fewest words. Nothing important is left out of the story by the author, and nothing unnecessary has been included.

You should make note of two facts: First, not all short stories have a central character or protagonist. Secondly, not all short stories include an “epiphany”, whereby the central character learns something.

Short Story Resources

The following is a list of books that will help you to understand the elements of a short story, the techniques that writers apply, and a several good short story anthologies that you can read:

  • Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction by Damon Knight.
  • The Art of the Short Story, Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn, which contains short story masterpieces from 52 different writers.
  • The Short Story Writer’s Companion by Tom Bailey, explains how to craft a short story.
  • On Writing Short Stories by Tom Bailey, explains how to craft a short story in part one, and includes thirty-three examples by many of the greatest writer’s in part two.
  • The Best American Short Stories Series, an anthology published each year.
  • The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010, a collection of twenty of the best short stories selected each year.
  • 50 Great Short Stories by Milton Crane, an anthology of the short story classics.
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