Episode 51: The Structure of a Short Story

On July 13th, we revisited our Short Story discussion this time focusing on structure. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Short Story — Structure


  • Short Story Basics
  • Structure of a short story
  • How to Write a Short Story
photo of woman raising her hands
Photo by Pedro Sandrini on Pexels.com

Segment 1

So last week we kicked off Short Story month by talking about how the short story is an American contribution to the literary canon. Don’t believe us? Try these links: The Origins and History of the American Short Story which argues it’s like jazz music; Encyclopedia Brittannica which says other words for it — sketch, tale — are indicative of the form’s evolution; and Wikipedia (of course) which says Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales legitimized the form by collecting multiple stories and publishing them together.

Some other rather obvious and famous examples of American short stories being attempted by “serious” writers:

European “shorts” were often gothic stories think The Vampyre by John Polidori and  Richard Cumberland‘s “The Poisoner of Montremos” (1791). Even Dickens and Sir Walter Scott played in the form for a while there.

What makes the short story so compelling?

Why write a short story instead of an entire novel?

With their origins in oral storytelling, short stories seem a natural fit for educating, demonstrating moral lessons, and providing examples of the desired behavior you’d like to see from children, friends, or colleagues. The teaching short story, or parable, is a classic form employed by Jesus — or at the very least, the monks who wrote the Bible.

Segment 2

So the primary distinction is the length, obviously, and there is some debate about what qualifies. Here’s a spectrum for your consideration:

  • Micro fiction— under 300 words
  • Flash fiction— under 2000 words (some say under 1000)
  • Short Story — between 2000 and 30,000 words (according to Writer’s Digest)
  • Novella — between 30,000 words and 50,000
  • Novel — over 50,000 words (most come in between 90,000 and 130,000)

Love this advice on how to write Flash:

TED MCLOOF, Creative Writing professor at University of Arizona:

  • DO: Read poetry. Short fiction handles narrative very well, gives it shape and frames it. But flash fiction isn’t narrative, or at least not traditionally so. It isn’t about a scene; it’s about a moment, or a series of moments. Poetry is a good way to learn how to do that: poets are adept at distilling the entire surface of a death or a lonely childhood or a violent break-up into a single object.
  • DON’T: Plan to write flash fiction. You’ll drive yourself crazy if you begin a story with a preconceived word count. It isn’t healthy for the story, or for the writer. Just begin writing, and if what comes out organically ends up being under a thousand words, well, then, there you go.
  • DO: Save your babies. We’re often, in fiction, advised to “kill our babies,” in other words, to throw out or delete a paragraph you really loved from a story in which it doesn’t quite fit. Flash fiction is a chance, I think, to allow those great paragraphs, shifting around in purgatory, to finally see the light of day.
  • DON’T: Think. It’s for suckers. Write in a fit of rage, in a blush of love, in a fury, in a depression, in a drunken stupor. It’s less than a thousand words; it’s not like you have to maintain the mood for weeks and weeks while you whittle it down. Just get pissed off, open a document, and vent–a lot of it will end up being total shit. But somewhere in there, you’re likely to strike gold.

Elements of a short story (arguably of ANY story, short or otherwise):

  • Plot
  • Character
  • Setting
  • Conflict
  • Theme

Also to include:

Segment 3

So how do you write a short story? This blog gives nine steps:

  1. Read as many great stories as you can find.

Recommend — The Best Non-Required Reading anthologies, The Best American Short Stories anthologies, classics, and of course literary journals like Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, Lumina, and dozens of others.

  1. Aim for the heart and evoke emotions in the reader.
    • Stories about loss, grief, love, redemption, justice all resonate 
  2. Narrow your scope.
    • What’s this story really about? Who is the right person to tell the story
  3. Powerful titles get attention.
    • Editors may change them, but the title can help your reader get oriented quickly and so the good ones cut down on the amount of text you’ll need to explain the theme of the story.
  4. Use classic story structure.
    • Begin with an inciting incident — why are we reading this story right now? What’s different about now than a minute or a day ago? Then layer in the exposition as needed.
  5. Suggest backstory, don’t elaborate.
    • Short stories don’t need a lot of exposition, just enough to raise the stakes and help the reader understand why the story is happening and matters.
  6. “When in doubt, leave it out.”
    • Some mystery, some speculation, is a good thing with a short story. It makes it compelling and makes the reader want to re-read, analyze, and consider the piece. Telling us everything we need doesn’t trust us to make inferences on our own.
  7. Ensure a satisfying ending.
    • The classic is a chronological one — the day is over, the concert ends, the school year concludes; but a satisfying ending means resolution, so in the beginning when we learn what the main character wants, we have to trust that we’ll know by the end whether she achieved it or not.
  8. “Cut like your life depends on it.”
    • There are so many stories that bog down in details, details that misdirect and derail the intention. Word count limitations are a great excuse to revise, revise, revise.

Here are some great quotes from writers defining “Short Story”:

  • “There’s a compression of language, of emotion, that isn’t to be found in the novel.” Raymond Carver
  • “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.” Flannery OConnor

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