What’s A Short Story?

One writing site I follow recently held a contest: “Write a short story in 500 words or less.” As I read through the various submissions this morning, part of the problem for me was thinking a story is always fiction. However, this contest called for a non-fiction story. So I read brief memoirs, rambling musings about life, possible devotional articles, but few submissions that I’d consider a real STORY.

Am I off-base in my understanding of STORY? There are a number of weekly writing challenges I do participate in that call for writing a story in xxx words, so it’s good to get a handle on the concept, even if I didn’t enter this contest.

Image from Pixabay

According to GRAMMARLY’s website, “Short stories are a form of narrative writing that has all the same elements as novels—plot, character development, point of view, story structure, theme—but are delivered in fewer words. … A short story is a short, self-contained work of fiction…”

And I see the ubiquitously quoted “Baby shoes for sale, never worn.”

Writer L Ron Hubbard gives good pointers on how to critique a short story: You need to judge the originality, the scene-setting, characterization, conflict and plot, a theme. It should be engaging and deliver some emotional payoff.

The Ragtag Daily Prompt for today is BRIDGE and I think it fits in today’s musing.

A short story should create a BRIDGE between a writer and a reader. Whether fiction or non-fiction, I need to reach out through my own – or my character’s – experience and touch your heart. It may be only a little chuckle, a small example of the human nature we all share, or a bit of sorrow.

Image by Josch13 — Pixabay

If I write about the time our family went to the zoo, saw the polar bears, watched the antics of the monkeys, had a great time, and came home, will that touch your heart?

If our beloved Jr disappeared at the zoo and we searched frantically to find him, that experience could easily be crafted into a story and would resonate with all parents. If I had to tell it in 100 words or less, that would take a lot of whittling! There wouldn’t be a lot of room to develop scene or theme, but it could be done.

Stories, especially short ones, need to start with a bang. No “Our family was at the zoo one sunny morning in mid-July. We were watching the polar bears splashing around in their pool when our I noticed that our son had disappeared in the crowd.”

Rather…
We watched the polar bears splashing so comically in their pool. I turned to lift my six-year-old so he could see more of their antics…and he’d disappeared!
“Frank,” I screamed over the noise of the other tourists, “Where’s Junior?”
Frank whirled around. “Junior! Where are you,” he shouted as we both scanned the crowd frantically.

Most readers would easily get the picture and feel some connection to this couple.

Anyway, enough of my musings. What do you see as the elements of an engaging short story? Do you like upbeat, happy endings? Or are you one who likes being left with a haunting melancholy when you’re done?

14 thoughts on “What’s A Short Story?

  1. To be honest, I don’t like happy endings that much, sometimes they sound made up, only the happy stuff are in the picture, none of the bad ones. Just discovered dystopian novels. Great!

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree, sometimes writers short-cut to tie up loose ends and produce a happy ending — but it sounds unrealistic. Sad endings should be logical and have a purpose, too, other than making readers feel miserable. I feel a balance is in order, though, as many of life’s endings are happy ones. Thankfully, most parents who lose track of children find them again unharmed.

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  2. There is no absolute here at all. A short story is a fiction genre, but not all stories are fiction. Personally, I think anyone who wants to be a writer will learn more about writing by reading good literature than by reading anyone’s ideas of how to write. Hemingway, Truman Capote, and Raymond Carver were extremely good short story writers who come to mind right now.

    As for the ending, the one hard and fast rule is that it is in harmony with the story.

    There is the question of unity in any work of fiction and that is that the time, place and character all belong together. The character should act in harmony with his/her nature and as a person in his/her place and time would act. That rule applies to non-fiction stories, too.

    Other than that it’s a question of style and at a certain point that’s just personal taste. There is no “should” as far as I can tell. In my job judging books I have to remember that there are books that make my teeth itch but are not, in and of themselves, bad books or poorly written. They are just not my taste.

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    1. Thanks for your comment and further pointers. Yes, to what you’ve written. Reading short stories — well written ones — is mandatory. Then we choose by our own interests and personality. I myself avoid stories that will only leave me feeling depressed and hopeless.

      Even in micro-fiction the writer must know their characters. I, too, dislike seeing situations where the main character, purely for the sake of melodrama, does something so outside the image her author has painted of her thus far.

      As to “out of time and place,” anachronisms grate on me. I read a novel about a woman circa 1880 who travels out West. A man asks her what she does for work, a question already ahead of that time/culture. And she replies, “I’m into human relations.” Moan. And he carries around a fountain pen that writes with gold ink — to write the “mysterious letter” with. Hmmm…

      I really like “make my teeth itch.” Unique expression!

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      1. Yeah, that’s like in one of the original scenes in the film Ben Hur a guy was wearing a wrist watch! My brother made up “makes my teeth itch” when he was a little kid. It’s a good one

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  3. As I specialise in silliness, there is little chance of my tales being mistaken for non-fiction even if they were influenced by something that I witnessed whilst out and about. For me, a short story needs to be straight to the point and easily understood at the first reading, something I often find difficult when reading others’ efforts. The ending? I like the unexpected as you may well expect!

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  4. It’s not just short works that sometimes falls into the category of not telling a complete story. I’ve read novels that have that issue as well. I liked the Amazon Prime show The Man in the High Castle, so I read the novel that it was based on. Three-quarters of the book was nothing but the author describing the differences between our world and the world in the book, where the Germans win World War 2. There was very little story to be found in the book.

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