What Makes a Great Short Story?
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.
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. Is has s 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'm going to talk more about what an incomplete plot is in the upcoming Foul post. 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, "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.
I think I will post the whole thing this Friday actually. Whet the appetite for the rest of the anthology.
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. *cringe*
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.
Sidenote: I watched the new Wonderwoman movie the other day. And when I wasn't laughing at its absurdity, I was shaking my head at its terrible plotting. Its ending is not inevitable, and frankly, the entire thing was not plausible.
A great short story has a banger of a climax that results from a natural progression of events.
4. It is a story about some aspect of the human condition at its core.
Even if you're writing the story about the beetle, it should still center around something human.
Your reader is human, you, I imagine, are human, and almost everything of interest is about human emotion or human consequences. Take Orwell's Animal Farm. It will always be remembered, not because it is a cute story about animals, but because it is an allegory about the human condition and the awful things we do to each other, even if our intentions are sometimes good. And communism.
I said something important just now, though.
To create interest—to keep your reader interested, hopefully for decades to come, you need to base your story on something that matters to them. And just as importantly, it has to matter to you.
J. Berg Esenwein said this better than I ever can, so I will quote him:
Make up your mind that human interest cannot be "faked." Don't try to write about that which does not lay hold of your own soul mightily. Get close to the pulsating life about you, know it, feel it, believe in it, sympathize with it, do something for it, live it, and as it pours through the channels of your own being it will qualify you to picture that life for others interestedly and interestingly….The great forces which compel men's interest in real-life—sacrifice, courage, genuineness, devotion, love, and all the rest—will grip your readers with convincing power. First transmute life into fiction, then fiction will awake to life.
A great short story touches on something real about the human experience that readers can relate to.
5. It is fresh
It must be original. This goes without explanation, I think. There are tropes, and there are basic genre expectations, and there is room for both these things in novels, but not the short story. You cannot rely on cliche in the short story. Your reader will not accept it. The short story reader usually holds you to a much higher standard.
Though let's face it, originality is always a good thing. Even if you choose to use tropes, there are original ways of turning them on their heads.
A great short story is something that your reader has never seen before.
Bonus: It is the perfect length
What is the perfect length of a short story, you ask?
Some might say 7,500 words because that is what most magazines and contests are looking for. Some might say as short as possible 3000 words.
But deciding on any single word count is dumb (for any kind of story).
The perfect length of a short story is exactly how long it needs to be to be good.
A great short story does not waste a single word, and it is the exact length it needs to say what it has to say and not a word more.
It's an easy lesson, but I am teaching it a lot because I am continuously asked.
We MUST stop this obsession with word counts and instead switch to an obsession with precision. I don't want any writer ever again worrying about their word counts unless to say, "Wow, I wrote 2000 words today! Good for me."
I don't care if the agent you are trying to woo is the strictest keeper of the sacred word count on the planet. I don't know one editor, agent, or publisher who will pass up a really great story because of word count.
If your story is long because it is filled with digressions and poor writing, that is a different matter. They might tell you, "oh, we rejected it because it is too long." But what they are really saying is, "This could be cut down to be better. It is too long for the story you are telling."
So please, for the love of Hecate, throw word counts out the window and instead focus on precision.
A great short story is as long as it needs to be and not a word longer.
In two weeks, I will post the counterpart to this—the Foul on why your short stories are getting rejected. Just from reading this, you might be able to come up with some of those reasons on your own, but there will be more to get into for sure.
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