When I’m not writing blog posts for Lulu or drafting site copy, I’m writing short stories. I’ll likely never be a novelist, nor do I aspire to write long-form. But I do draft something like 30 short stories a year because I love writing and find the challenge of creating fiction with constricted word count fun.
I’d like to take a moment to look at the key elements of great short stories I’ve observed and learned from great writers and teacher over the years.
What makes a great short story?
Short stories have to achieve a lot of story in only a few words. There are four elements that really make a story stand out: character, plot, setting, and tension. Balancing these elements is the first step to making your short story amazing.
Kurt Vonnegut said that your short story should have “at least one character [your reader] can root for.” He also said, “Every character should want something.” Among the plethora of writing advice, Vonnegut has to offer, these two points about characters are among my favorites.
First comes crafting a character who wants something. When I was younger, I never put a lot of thought into what my characters wanted. I treated them as caricatures, not imagining my characters to be real. Obviously, this was a mistake and my stories suffered for it.
When we think of our characters as people with wants and desires, we can better understand them and create better stories about them. Your short fiction will probably focus on only a few characters, so you can really get to know them. You should try to get to the heart of what your protagonist wants.
I always write a line or two defining what a character wants, usually after I’ve written a rough draft and considered for a time that character in their story.
For example, I drafted a story a few months ago about a woman who gets a phone call from her dead brother. Certainly, the story leans on the weird and fantastical side, but here’s the sentence I wrote for my protagonist after I finished the first draft:
Veronica wants unmedicated happiness without the weight of her family and obligations hamstringing her.
In the story itself, I never delve into her issues with her family (beyond some allusions to strain) nor her medically induced attempts at happiness (aside from a line about sifting among pill bottles in her purse). What Veronica wants doesn’t impact the story in a large way, but understanding what she wants enabled me to better visualize her and bring her to life on the page.
And from knowing our character, it becomes possible to make them someone your reader can root for. I can’t think of a single short story I’ve read that had a truly unredeemable protagonist. Consider Flannery O’Connor’s classic, A Good Man is Hard to Find. The Grandmother is a nuisance to her family and ultimately leads them all to a terrible end. Yet it is hard not to root for her as the story unfolds. Possibly because we know with fair certainty what she wants, but also in part because O’Connor is a masterful storyteller.
Regardless, a character the reader wants to see succeed drives the story forward and gives that character depth and humanity. We need a character we can attach ourselves too so we can feel involved in the story.
I kind of hate the idea of plot in a work of fiction. It should just happen, right? Like, we start with an idea, add some events around that idea, work the characters into people we can see and feel for, and refine the text until the story is done. Where does the plot fit in?
Here’s a definition I think helps explain why plot matters: “the sequence of events inside a story which affect other events through the principle of cause and effect.” What I like about this definition is that it doesn’t demand that you create a plot; rather it must be acknowledged.
I’m not writing down the individual events that make up the plot or some dialog or flowery descriptions. I’m writing these things into each other, coming out the other side with a story—the plot is a byproduct.
That doesn’t mean you can ignore the plot. Every writer and teacher I’ve floated my idea of ignoring plot to have scoffed. The plot cannot be ignored. For a short story though, you can think about the plot a little less than you would for a novel. Let your characters drive the story and let the plot naturally evolve.
I have to say; the setting is my favorite part of short fiction. Unlike a longer piece, you won’t be visiting many locations within your story. The settings you do visit really need to shine.
The setting also gives your story texture and depth, making the place and time real for the reader through carefully shared details. You also can really play with form in the setting by creating a sense of place in a variety of interesting ways.
Take, for example, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway. In this story, Hemingway establishes the setting without specifying exactly where we are. By placing a premium on the shade, mentioning the “dirty boots” and “baked red” of Macomber’s face, we get a picture of a rustic, hot location. Hemingway puts us on the African plains without explicitly telling us that’s where we are; rather he paints a picture that reminds us, whether or not we’ve been to Africa, of what that place should be like.
This masterful use of setting also establishes the tone of the story. Beyond telling us where the action of the story is happening, the setting reveals the moods and emotions of the characters, while giving a further reference point the reader can cling too.
In my experience of reading and creating short fiction, the setting is the most often underutilized elements. Don’t miss an opportunity to add important texture to the story in a lush setting.
We often refer to tension as Conflict, but essentially what it means is the element of your short story that drives the action. What makes the protagonist do what they do? What forces the actions that lead to the events of the story?
I don’t like to define this element as Conflict because that almost demands there be some confrontation or altercation. Tension, to me, is more accurate because there need not be any resolution or winner in the story.
Rather, I prefer tension; elements that raise our concerns, that make us wonder what will happen next and how our protagonist will react to those events. Elements that can be dangerous, but can also be sad or heartwarming or even frustrating. The tension will propel the story.
Most of my stories start with a point of tension and develop from there. From the earliest idea to the completed story, the one constant is the tension that drives the action.
Bringing the Pieces together
Writing any kind of fiction will use the four elements I covered in this piece. We’re not touching on anything unique to short story writing all on its own. The constraints on length shift how we think about these important elements.