What Makes a Great Short Story?
Originally posted: 02/03/2021
I have been obsessed with short stories lately. This is mostly because I needed to read so many when publishing The Beginning & End of All Things (Amazon affiliate link).
By the way, there are some pretty great stories in that anthology, if I do say so myself. Including the one I wrote under my pen name Turi T. Armstrong called "Todd."
….where was I?
Short stories are like wild animals, and novels are house pets.
House pets have lots of variation, but they are still almost always recognizable as house pets. Sure they all have their unique personalities, but they are mostly safe. That's why they make good house pets.
Now, wild animals are entirely different. The variation between them is seemingly endless. Sometimes researchers even stumble on new ones that are so beyond anything we have seen before that they appear as aliens. They can be incredibly dangerous, and even the docile ones might infect you with some strange disease if you touch them!
That is short stories.
It is a format that allows writers to experiment, stretch the bounds of their imaginations, and push the limits of their technical skills.
But later this month I will talk more about why you should write short stories. In this post, I want to outline what makes an excellent short story.
So, in my opinion, here are the 5 necessary elements of a great short story.
1. It has a strong theme.
I don't think themes are fairly discussed in many writing circles. Don't get me wrong, it is talked about a lot, and I don't think the advice given to authors 9/10 times is terrible. Quite the opposite, actually.
I do think that it can get overly complicated, though.
It's simple. Your theme is the general or specific idea that you are exploring through your story. Then, everything that happens in that story should be able to tie back into that idea.
How you choose to do that is entirely up to you and will depend on the idea you've chosen and the story you are writing. Everyone will do it differently, and that is the best thing about what we do!
Are there techniques you can learn help to really nail the theme? Yes. But I don't think you need to do those things to write a strong-themed story either.
Maybe one day I will go into themes a bit more, but today is not that day.
In full-length novels, you can get away with a wishy-washy theme (though solid is usually better). However, in short stories, you HAVE to be succinct. Everything you write, every word, every idea, needs to be on point. There is no room for ambiguity.
A strong theme will tie the threads of your story together. Imagine your words and ideas are water; your theme is the vessel you use to keep it all contained. Without a strong one, you risk your thoughts spilling out, i.e., out of your reader's heads and into the never to be remembered list of stories.
A great short-story has a strong enough theme to be rememberable.
2. Has a whole plot
Robert Barr notes why most authors will be forgotten and some will not. He says his model is Euclid because he:
...lays down his plot, sets instantly to work at its development, letting no incident creep in that does not bear relation to the climax, using no unnecessary word, always keeping his one end in view, and the moment he reaches the culmination, he stops.
That is the best description of the perfect short story plot that I know of. But it must be whole.
I talk more about what an incomplete plot is in "10 Reasons Your Short Stories are Being Rejected." But your short story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs to be complete. Just as your novel would, it should have a character arc, too, in some shape or form. It doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, it shouldn't be.
You can use a regular three-act structure; any structure that works for a full-length novel will work just as well for a short story.
The third story in The Beginning & End of All Things (affiliate link), "Valhalla Interrupted" by Matthew Stuart Evans, is perhaps my favorite in the whole anthology. There are many reasons to love it, but one of those is that it is impeccably plotted. From the introduction that lures the reader in and creates mystery to the protagonist's character arc that weaves through and mirrors the main plot. It's brilliant.
God, I'm salesy today, anyway...
No matter what form of plotting you choose for your short story, for it to elevate your work from good to great, it must at least afford these things:
It must be simple. A complex story is better suited for a novel. Keep it simple. Choose one idea and do that one idea justice.
It must be plausible. There is a saying in fiction (I'm sorry, I don't remember who said it first—I just know it was a long time ago):
If fishes are made to talk, they should talk like fishes, not like whales.
I don't care if you are writing the POV of a beetle in a made-up wonderland of only color. The story still needs to have some logic, be understandable, and be based on some idea of truth or recognizable lived experience. (more on this below).
Even liars know that if they are to be believed, their lies need to be plausible.
A great short story has a concrete and determined plot.
3. Is all about the climax.
Boys, you know you better….watch out! Short-stories, short stories are only...about. That thing, that thing, that thiieeiing.
...if you only knew how embarrassingly I just belted that….
Sometimes I make me sad.
But it's true. The short story must revolve around the climax. All elements must lead inevitably to that one place, and as soon as they get there, it's done. Finito.
I am continually spouting that if something veers away from the story's plot, it needs to be cut. But in no place is this more true than in the short story. EVERYTHING. Every word, every sentence, every description, every ounce of dialogue needs to be working toward that climax. There is no room for flowery exposition for the sake of itself. There is no room for subplots or digressions. Nothing can detract from that journey and the final destination (that hopefully comes with a bang.)
Your climax should be unexpected but still inevitable. Meaning—it should surprise your reader, but once they are there, it should be the only place they can imagine being after all the pieces are laid out before them.
If you want to know how to do this with precision, read mystery. There is a lot of great mystery out there, so I will not give you any specific recommendations. If a mystery writer is to be successful, they need to have this one thing down. When revealed, the killer should be unexpected, but when looking back at all the clues given throughout the book, the reader should be able to say, "AAH! Of course! How did I not see that?"
Bad mystery is undeniable and doesn't do so well. They often reveal killers that come out of nowhere that could never have been guessed at because the author went to lengths to deceive that reader and muddy the waters. The reveal was not inevitable because the author left out essential pieces, usually on purpose.