Secrets of the Short Story

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Some of the most memorable writing in any language is found in short stories. From Poe’s tales of “mystery and imagination” to Kafka’s nightmarish visions, from Conan Doyle’s adventures of Sherlock Holmes and O. Henry’s clever twists to Sherwood Anderson’s heart-breaking tales of Winesburg, Ohio and the “epiphanies” of James Joyce’s Dublin, from the magical realism of Julio Cortazar or Jorge Luis Borges to the hard-boiled realism of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, the range is endless.


Many of the greats of the 20th century used the short story form to hone their craft as well as to earn a living in those days when people looked to magazines and newspapers rather than TV or computer games for entertainment. Though the short story’s place in the culture has changed, it lives on. Indeed, the World Wide Web has breathed new life into the form by providing writers with hundreds of new places to publish and by making their work accessible to millions of potential readers with a simple click.


 Few pleasures equal that of reading a well-turned example of the form, but writing a good short story is a challenge. Every word has to count, every action has to move the plot forward while also revealing the characters, every shred of dialogue must be essential to driving the plot on. Here are some things to think about.


  • A short story is not the same as telling a friend, family member, or anyone else who will listen about an interesting or exciting experience you had. A short story is not about fictionalizing an interesting or exciting experience you had by changing real people’s names to fictional ones. A short story is about the transformation of the main character, not about “what happened” to her or him.


  • A short story requires a sympathetic main character. The reader needs to identify with him or her so that we begin to live vicariously through the character’s experiences. This identification is what makes some fiction so compelling that we can’t stop reading. As readers, our imagination takes over, and the writer’s world becomes reality. We are living the suspense and the drama right along with the main character. It becomes as real as anything that happens to us in our own lives.


  • A short story is about a character who wants something desperately—it’s a matter of life and death. Unfortunately, he is blocked from having what he wants, but is so obsessed that he will walk on coals, move mountains, or brave the fires of hell to get it. The plot of a short story consists of the actions the main character takes to overcome the obstacle that stands between him and his heart’s desire. 


  • A short story should start with a “hook”. This might be a dramatic or humorous line of dialogue, an unusual or unexpected statement, or an exciting bit of action. Whatever it is, the line has to grab the reader’s attention immediately. Indeed, it must happen so fast that the reader doesn’t stop to decide whether to read on. She’s “hooked”.


  • The opener of a short story should plunge the reader into the main action. For example, Sam stands before his boss’s desk thinking he’s about to get a promotion, but gets fired instead. Unfortunately, his mortgage is overdue, his wife is pregnant, his children need expensive dental work, and his car just sputtered out its last mile. This moment is where your story begins—right in the middle of Sam’s problem--not a few weeks, months, or years before.


  • Character (motivation) is what triggers the plot. The plot consists of the actions the main character takes to overcome the obstacle to his heart’s desire. Ten different people facing the situation of getting fired when they most need a job will react differently according to their “character”. A passive person might fall into a deep depression, which wouldn’t be much of a story. An angry person might begin plotting revenge on her boss. A desperate person might turn to a life of crime to solve his problem. An escapist might pack up her suitcase and decide to run away with the circus.


  • A short story usually covers a few hours to a few days. It’s not suited to longer periods of time because each scene of a short story is tightly interwoven with the one that came before and the one that follows. In other words, the main character is making choices and taking actions, which then lead to another choice and more action, as the suspense builds. This dramatic tension takes on a life of its own and leads to a climax, when the tension is finally released.


  • A short story will contain only enough background information that the reader can immediately make sense of the scene, the characters, and the situation. Few readers will have the patience to sit through two or three pages of “back-story” before the “main action” begins.  To keep your opener exciting, you must work this “exposition” organically and seamlessly into the main character’s thoughts, feelings and reactions to what’s happening and/or into the spoken dialogue with other characters.


  • The main character of a short story must be vulnerable as well as sympathetic. Give him or her some weaknesses—whether it’s vanity or insecurity or hard-headedness. Readers identify most with characters that, like us, are all too human.


  • A short story doesn’t go from point A to point Z. It zigs and zags from one obstacle or frustration to the next as it barrels toward the climax. In other words, it’s not that Sally gets fired just when she was expecting a promotion, but all is saved the next day when a friend gets her a better job at higher pay. No, losing her job is just the catalyst. To create drama, Sally has to encounter a series of new obstacles. Maybe she moves in with her parents to save money, but they drive her nuts. Then she gets a promising job interview, but her car breaks down on the way. Desperate, she falls for a get-rich-quick scheme, and now she’s not only out of work but has lost her life savings. If she comes out of this experience stronger yet wiser, you might well have the makings of a plot.



  • The main character of a short story must solve the story’s obstacles through her own efforts. It can’t be a friend, a family member, a fairy godmother, the lottery, or the cavalry that do it for her. However, the true resolution of a short story is not how it “turns out”. It doesn’t matter whether the heroine marries her ideal man or the treasure hunter finds the buried treasure or the sheriff drives the outlaws from town. The true resolution is that the main character is transformed by the experience he has lived through. For example, Sally may fail to win the heart of the handsome hero in the course of a short story, but her heart has opened to passion. Suddenly realizing that it’s better to have loved than never to have loved at all, Sally turns and walks away into the sunset. The reader, by extension, shares in this awakening. And that is the joy of fiction.

Copyright 2007 by Donna Ippolito