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Lesson 10: How the Short Story Works

A lesson on the basics of short fiction (elements and techniques) and how overcome problems when writing short stories.


  • To discuss the short story form
  • To study the structure of the short story
  • To enumerate common problems and how to overcome them

Quick Navigation through the Lesson 10:

The short story is a relatively young form, only having been established in the 17th century—before its advent, the only type of prose work available for public consumption was literary criticism. All other story-telling was done via drama or the poetry epic. Spear-headed by Miguel De Cervantes’s Don Quixote, the short story is a precursor to the novel and is a form that focuses on narrative and plot.

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Short Story Structure

A short story has a definite form—in this section, we learn about the elements, parts and what makes a good short story.

In order to understand the short story as a form, we must first understand its elements. According to Aristotle, a good work of art is one that has Organic Unity or that is able to attain the seamless coming together of all its elements to achieve mimesis or an accurate reflection (mimicry) of the world around us.

One of the biggest developments in the appreciation of the short story as a form is Edgar Allan Poe’s single effect—he said that a short story is good if it is able to impress upon the reader a single effect or emotion: sadness, glee, hopefulness for the future.

Poe talks about the short story and how its brevity (as opposed to the novel) only allows it to be about a few people, about a certain thing or happening and thus, should have an effect on the read that is the product of a unison of its parts. He defined the short story as fiction that you should be able to read in one sitting; he insisted that unlike the novel, the short story should be appreciated in one go because if the reader stops mid-way and does something else, he returns to the narrative a different person already “altered by life” and thus, unable to appreciate the work’s single effect.

Listed below are the different Elements of Fiction which directly apply to the structure of a short story.

Characters. This pertains to the people who populate your narrative. There are many different types of characters and you may employ them as needed in your story.

a.)   Characters According to their Role

Protagonist. The protagonist is the main, round character who undergoes change.

Antagonist. The antagonist of a story is not necessarily the villain. He is the character who opposes the Protagonist. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, the antagonist is Montresor, the main character who murders his friend in the catacombs.

b.) Characters According to Change

 Dynamic. Dynamic characters undergo change or refuse the last opportunity to change as the story progresses. A good example of a dynamic character is Haruki Murakami’s Tony Takitani, where a man becomes haunted by the death of his wife.

Static. Static characters are those who don’t undergo change throughout the length of the narrative. For instance, in Kelly Link’s story Stone Animals the character of Carleton is static—until the end, he doesn’t learn to like the haunted house they’re living in.

 c.)    Characters According to Development

 Round. Round characters are those that are well-developed and have the ability to surprise the reader.

 Flat/Stock. Flat characters or stock characters are generic characters used only to further the plot.

 Plot. A plot is the sequence of events that happen within a story that are curated in a manner that best allows the story to achieve its single effect. In 1863, the German critic Gustav Freytag conceptualized the parts of a plot. Those are as follows:

 a.)   Exposition. This is where the story begins and we are introduced into the world that the story takes place in.

b.)    Rising Action. The story begins the pick up pace; this is the point at which the conflict is introduced.

c.)    Climax. The height of the action, at which the characters are usually forced into making decisions that determine their fate and the fate of the conflict or tension.

 d.)   Dénouement. This is also sometimes called the falling action—this is where the story wraps itself up. Most conflicts have been resolved by this part.

Setting. Setting is perhaps the most overlooked element of fiction. It is, however, crucial to the narrative. It determines how your characters act and what circumstances they need to face. For example, a story set in World War II would definitely have to be a very different story as one set in medieval times.

Mood/Tone. This element has most to do with language. It is the phrasing of words to suit the tone you want to convey. For example, if you would like to convey melancholy, you would perhaps use the word “somber” to describe a woman’s expression.

Point of View. This pertains to the narrator and determines his/her limitations. Below are the different types of Points of View that you can find/use in short stories.

a.)   First Person. Here, the narrator is, himself, a character in the story. This point of view makes use of the pro-noun “I”.

b.)    Second Person. Here, the narrator breaks the fourth wall and talks to the reader. The pro-noun “You” is utilized by this Point of View.

c.)    Third Person Omniscient. The omniscient narrator is often disembodied (does not participate in the narrative). He/she can enter the minds of the characters and has the ability to reveal what they are thinking or feeling.

d.)   Third Person Limited. This is halfway between first person and third person omniscient. The narrator does not participate but can only see into the mind of one character.

e.)    Third Person Objective. In this Point of View, the narrator assumes the perspective of a bystander and is not privy to any of the characters’ thoughts. Actions and dialogue are described purely via external movement.

 Theme. A story’s theme is always a sentence. A lot of readers make the mistake of saying that a story’s theme is “love” or “sadness” or “death”—a theme is a complete sentence that describes the story’s outlook on the human condition (i.e. “All things that you love will eventually die.” Or “All good things come to an end.”). The theme results as the proper tying together of all the elements of fiction.

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Guidelines and Techniques

There are many different ways in which we can make writing easier—below are guidelines and techniques that will help you simplify your writing process.

Writing a short story might seem complicated, but there are certain guidelines and techniques that we can apply that will make this ordeal simpler.

 Be Consistent. This has most to do with Point of View and Character. For example, if you employ the third person objective (the narrator is a bystander who can only talk about external actions) narrative, you will have to do away with describing the characters’ thoughts. This is also applicable to the Plot element, as events in a story are often causal and so the chronology of events is important.

Employ Irony. The thing that makes most fiction effective is the presence of irony. Irony is when events unfold contrary to how they are expected to unfold. This can be implemented into a short story through the following devices: mystery (which answers the question what or who), conflict (which answers the question who wins? or sometimes, why?) and tension (which answers the question how?).

An excellent example of this is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, where he employs verbal irony (when characters say the opposite of what they mean) and dramatic irony (when the audience knows something that the characters don’t) to heighten the tension between the two characters. Montresor, the protagonist, consistently calls Fortunato his friend as he leads him to his death.

These touches make stories interesting and more engaging. One may also situational irony (when events unfold contrary to how we thought they would at the beginning).

Know When to Show, When to Tell. There are always two ways of writing things—to tell (“He was bored.”) and to show (“He was tapping his fingers on the counter.”). Both can be effective but the key is to know when to use which, given the context of the story you’re writing.

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Problems and How to Resolve Them

Many problems can arise when working on your drafts. Here are some ways to make your draft work, despite these setbacks.

As with any other craft, writing short stories take a lot of hard work. That said, it is inevitable that aspiring writers might encounter a couple of problems when writing. Here are a couple of the most common problems that writers encounter when writing short stories and how to go about resolving them.

 Plot Holes. A plot hole occurs when a writer is careless about the events that transpire in the narrative (e.g. where a character was at a certain time). These inconsistencies are detrimental to the reader’s suspension of disbelief and so they aren’t able to experience the single effect intended by the author.

To avoid this, one can make an outline of the events which happen within the story to keep as a guide or reference while writing.

Exposition via Dialogue. Exposition via dialogue sounds artificial and forced (i.e. “Hi, my name is Wina. I’m so sad because my pet dog died today,” she said)—again, it tampers with the story’s credibility. To avoid this, we can practice by writing dialogues between our characters where they don’t stray from their topic of conversation (for example, Anna and Jesse talking about the weather).

Loose Ends. Anton Chekov, a Russian playwright said that if a gun appears in the first act, the play shouldn’t end without someone firing it. Avoiding loose ends entails paying close attention to detail—all things you linger on should be important or crucial to the story’s outcome. This can be avoided by omitting unnecessary statements or descriptions.

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In this lesson we learned that the short story should be a cohesive narrative that has a strong single effect on our readers. We also studied that in order to achieve this effect, we need to master the tying together of the Elements of Fiction—namely character, setting, theme, tone/mood, point of view and plot. We were also able to learn about certain methods that we can apply in order to write interesting short stories such as irony (mystery and tension) and knowing when we should show and when we should tell. In addition to this, we were able to identify common problems that writers encounter when writing short stories; thus, we were able to identify how to avoid them.

Our next lesson is about writing a novel—novels consist of intertwining short stories called chapters and so the lessons we learned in this section will play a big part when we start talking about the principles of writing a novel and how we go about creating a complex work of fiction.




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