Saturday, May 22, 2010

What makes a good short story?

No, really, WHAT??

That is the question I've been trying to answer for myself over the last week or so. For a long time, I always said I couldn't write short stories and I didn't like reading them either. But in my early twenties, I kept up a writing blog for awhile where I wrote "episodes" about my recurring Arestin characters that were fairly self-contained. I didn't realize it at the time, but they were like short stories with training wheels. They didn't really quite stand alone, but they were getting close.

Over the last year or so, inspired by some of the brilliant stories over at the Merry Sisters of Fate blog, I've started thinking that I'd like to write short stories, and reading 'em ain't half bad either.

Coincidentally, I had just created this blog to post short stories to when I was asked to contribute to a short story anthology. Okay, so this story is going to be in a real book that might lead people to my other work. I want it to be good! I picked up a few short story anthologies to analyze what makes a short story work and not work for me.

With a short story, you don't have a whole lot of time to establish character. You have to get in and get out. Since character is the most compelling part of many novels, this can be a problem. One way around this is to write a story set in a pre-established world. Still, you want it to be interesting to people who are completely unfamiliar with the world.

My favorite short stories to read seem to fall under three times (IN MOST CASES): Funny, Uncanny, or Puzzle.

Funny: Self-explanatory. Funny stories can be entertaining at any length, because it's the humor catching the reader. Just make sure you really are funny before you attempt this. Sometimes people try too hard.

Uncanny: "Strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way" says my quickie computer dictionary's definition of the uncanny. I think many of the best Merry Fates stories fall in this camp. These stories are immediately intriguing because they explore something that we are automatically fascinated by.

Puzzle: These are often mystery stories. The plot sets up and settles an interesting situation. Asimov was good at these. Like any good mystery, this can't just be a basic "who murdered this person with poison? oh, it was the maid!" It needs to be clever. However, it also doesn't HAVE to be a mystery. It could just be an unusual dilemma in the character's life.

In most cases, I'm going for the uncanny myself, but I've read short stories that have done all three well. (Some might even do all three well at once!) Now, what does NOT work for me as a reader? Every short story collection has a few duds. Usually the writing is good but they just don't work. I've noticed that for this, we can go back to a common novel writer's question. What makes a good first sentence? A good first page? A short story really needs these because the pages are so limited.

You often see writers trying to excite people with first lines full of action and tension but no actual INTRIGUE. Similarly, a lot of short stories present a very basic situation similarly full of action and tension without intrigue. Character needs to sneak a captive out of a house, character resolves things with an ex-boyfriend, character finally masters healing magic. These scenes might work fine in a novel, but I think they tend to be sort of boring in a short story unless the characters involved are extremely compelling in a low word count. I'm a big fan of the striking moment in a short story. The Merry Sisters of Fate are good at this. They pretty much never post a story that doesn't have a striking and unusual line in it somewhere, if not many places.

Also, for goodness sake, don't put too many characters in the story. I can't keep track of seven different named characters in a twenty-page story.

I think that is all for now. More as insights develop. ;) What do you think makes for good short fiction? And what doesn't?


  1. Another one of my favorite authors, Frewin Jones, always says that a short story should be haunting and should leave you wanting more. That's what I like to read--though it can be torturous at times--and also what I try to go for when I write a short story.
    Beautiful despriptions of epicness and an abrupt, striking ending is what makes a good short story to me.
    I read one on the other day that absolutely blew me away. You can check it out here: if you like. =)

    Great post, by the way!

  2. Haunting and leaving you wanting more...yes, indeed. I'll agree with that!

    I'm not as big a fan of huge descriptive eyes skim them, picking up a vague sense of atmosphere and moving on. (But it's always fascinating to me to know what works for other people even if it doesn't work for me.) The story you linked to was interesting, though, and topical, because we just had a discussion on disability in fiction on another board and Tourette's came up as being very misunderstood, in stories and in life.

  3. I never liked reading or writing short stories either until recently. There just weren't satisfying. Then I was sent Zombie: an anthology of the undead and I loved it so much. I haven't finished a short story yet but thinking about them is keeping my mind of my novel that's on submission. And I need the distraction! Great post, thanks!

  4. I'm one of those people who likes Uncanny- or Puzzle-type short stories myself. . .but I've read stories in those categories before and have NOT liked them. (The only short stories I've really read, though, come from what I've read in recent YA anthologies.)

    As for my own writing. . .I'm terrible with short stories. I get ideas for them, sure, but here's the problem: they have an uncanny way of expanding beyond my control where I realize, "Okay, this could be a NOVEL if I'm not careful." I've had two SS ideas morph into novel ideas, and -- while that's great -- it's also a bit disheartening since many writers start out by publishing short stories to build their repertoire.

    Anyway -- this post got me to thinking that I should try harder to write short stories, so I'll try my hand at them a bit more. :)

  5. Rhiannon: Short stories as distraction from a novel on sub sounds like a GREAT use of short stories. ;)

    JSavant: I agree...I always had that problem that every short story wanted to be a novel. And I still wrestle with it. Frankly, if I like characters and a world enough to write about it, I don't want to let it go that fast. But I'm trying to remind myself there is always another good idea and short stories can be a playground, and there's nothing saying I can't expand it into a novel later... It helps. Somewhat.

  6. I love short stories. Anyone who thinks they don't should read Flannery O'Connor.