What Is a Short Story

We begin with a couple of dictionary definitions. The first defines a story as "the telling of a happening or a series of connected events." Another definition of a short story is "a narrative...designed to interest, amuse, or inform the hearer or reader."

These are the first of many definitions we'll encounter in the course of this book. Each definition has its uses, although none completely captures the essence of what a short story is. When taken together, they will all contribute to your sense of what constitutes a short story and what makes one story satisfying to read while another is less so.

We will concentrate on the traditional story—the kind that derives its power from characters, actions, and plot; that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Not all short stories are like this. An advantage of the short story form is that its brevity allows variations and experiments that would be difficult to sustain throughout the much longer course of a novel. A short story writer can focus on sketching a character, presenting a slice of life, playing with language, or evoking a mood. Many excellent stories written and published today achieve their impact from the way the author assembles a mosaic of images or jagged fragments of experience, instead of telling an old-fashioned tale. But the traditional story provides the best vantage point for examining the craft of short story writing.

The best way to get a solid feel for the short story as a literary form is to learn from the stories themselves. Become a voracious and eclectic reader. Read stories in abundance. Read literary stories and stories from a variety of genres—mystery, science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance. Read classic stories by acknowledged masters and recently published works by writers whose reputations are still developing. Read traditional stories and experimental ones. You will gain an intuitive sense of how to make a story work.

Then do the three things that are essential to becoming a short story writer:

2. Write some more.

3. Keep on writing.


When you write a short story you use the raw material of your imagination, your experience, and your observations about how life works to construct a small but complete and self-contained world. You create a sort of parallel universe that resembles the real world but differs from it in significant ways. Your world may mirror the real one so closely that we as readers accept it as the one we walk around in every day, or it may deviate markedly, especially if you are writing science fiction or fantasy. As the writer, your job is to make your world so vivid and true that readers believe in it, no matter how preposterous it may be when compared to reality.

Two things distinguish a short story world from the actual one: In real life, events occur haphazardly, while in fiction they have a purpose. Because of that, a short story doesn't leave us hanging, perplexed about the outcome, the way life does. We have the satisfaction of achieving resolution and a sense of closure.


In the two dictionary definitions already cited, the key words are connected and designed. Unlike your holiday letter to Aunt Sue, in a short story the events described are not random. The author chooses, organizes, and describes them with a design or purpose in mind. What connects the events is the contribution each one makes to the accomplishment of this unifying goal.

There are many possible story goals. You might wish to examine some aspect of human nature, or to help yourself and your readers understand what it's like to go through some experience. You could be striving to create a particular mood or evoke a certain emotion within your readers: This story's going to scare the bejeebers out of them.

Whatever your goal might be, it becomes the organizing principle of the story, giving it cohesion, coherence, and a sense of completeness. The decisions you make about the story—who the characters are, what incidents are depicted, where the incidents take place, how the story is structured, what words are chosen to tell it—all derive from the goal. Anything extraneous, however brilliant or profound it may be, can distract both you and your reader from the purpose of the story.

Does having a goal sound lofty and a bit daunting? Don't worry, you don't have to climb Mount Everest. Scaling a gentle slope will do just as well. "A narrative ... designed to interest, amuse, or inform the reader"—there are infinite ways, large and small, to interest, amuse, and inform.

Nor do you need to have clearly identified your goal before you start. As we noted, writing a short story is a process of exploration—a search not only to find answers, but often to figure out what the questions are. As you plan your story and write the early drafts, you'll gain a clearer focus on the goal you want to pursue.

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