Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Short Stories

What exactly is a short story?

A short story is a fictional piece of prose that has a fully developed theme and a series of linked-incidents that is set to evoke a “single effect” or mood.

In literature, when we talk about a short story, we mean a fictional narrative of between 1600-2000 words. Short stories derive from the oral story tradition and generally focus on a single subject or theme, a central character, and one setting. Anything under 1000 words is known as flash fiction, and anything over 20,000 is a novella.

Edgar Allen Poe said that a short story should be something you can consume in one sitting if you have a couple of hours on your hands, the perfect book to read on a long train ride. Think of the small, thin paperback books that were sold at British railway stations in the 1800s.

Ghost stories, fairytales, children’s stories, and traditional folk tales often fall within the category of the short story. Without much room for a preamble, they usually begin and end somewhat abruptly and are often experimental in form.

Short stories can create as much impact as novels. In fact, many have been made into award-winning movies.

5 Examples of short stories:

And speaking of movies, we’ve chosen five short stories that have been made into five great films. Although certain creative liberties have been taken (storylines and characters often stray from the original plot), I’m adding the film trailers here to feed your imagination and demonstrate that a story doesn’t need to be long to be powerful.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving,

In this story, our protagonist is the superstitious schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, who arrives in a Dutch settlement, which is renowned for ghosts and eerie atmosphere. The most famous of these ghosts is the Headless Horseman, thought to be a soldier who lost his head to a cannonball. Crane sets his sights on one of his students, Katrina Van Tassel, the young daughter of a wealthy farmer. Competing for his love interest is Brom Van Brunt who turns to pranks when he fails to intimidate Crane through physical violence.

One day, after failing to win Katrina’s hand in marriage, Crane returns to his schoolhouse but finds himself pursued by a horse. Unable to shake it off, he realizes that the rider has no head. Approaching the church where the Headless Horseman is said to roam, Crane races to the bridge where the Horseman is thought to disappear and not return. But instead of vanishing, the Horseman turns and hurls his head at him.

What happens next is a mystery. When Crane is knocked off his horse by the Horseman’s head, is he spirited away, leaving only a hat and a splattered pumpkin, or does he flee Sleepy Hollow on foot, never to return?

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is an excellent example of a gothic short story. Now 200 years old, it romanticizes life on the Hudson. An excellent example of metaphor, the entire town, and its inhabitants are ‘sleepy’ and dream fantastical dreams about ghouls and monsters. While Crane loves spooky stories, he doesn’t fit in Sleepy Hollow’s universe and through sorcery — or very clever trickery — is finally banished from it.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This short story follows the life of Benjamin Button, a boy born as a 70-year-old man who ages in reverse. The story is set in a time near the American Civil War. When Button is born, his parents have a hard time accepting his condition, forcing him to act as his true age. However, Button thinks and behaves like an older man, dressing in a suit, and smoking cigars. It comes as no great surprise that he fails to get into school due to his perceived age and demeanor. As time passes, Button notices that he begins to look younger and that his energy is increasing.

Button attends a party with his father, where he meets a woman named Hildegarde Moncrief. They fall in love and marry, despite Button looking like he is 20 years older than his wife. They soon have a child, and Button continues to look and act younger. Living life in reverse, he serves the army, enters college, and graduates from Harvard. Meanwhile, his son inherits the family’s hardware business and seems to be embarrassed with his father, because of his appearance. Finally, Button attends kindergarten with his own grandchild, and he continues to get younger and younger until his mind goes blank, resetting to infancy.

This short story, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, takes on an interesting look at life in reverse. It also amazingly magnified the polar ends of life — the elderly and infant years. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shows a juxtaposition of life’s most polar extremes — birth and death. In the end, we are left with a child who presents birth and new beginnings, while also being left a 70-year-old man who is losing all his memories and is on the brink of death.

Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

Brokeback Mountain is about the story of two young men, Ennis Del Mar, and Jack Twist, who meet in 1963 after both getting a job as sheepherders on Brokeback Mountain for the summer. They are both high school dropouts, desperate for work. Starting as strangers, the two of them eventually become friends. One night, when it is too cold for Del Mar to return to base camp, Twist convinces him to sleep in his tent. Del Mar agrees, and from that night, their connection becomes more intimate, more passionate.

Summer ends, and so do their shepherding jobs. They decide to go their separate ways and keep everything between them a secret. Del Mar marries Alma, and they have two daughters. Twist has had a wife named Lureen, and they have a son. After four years, Del Mar receives a letter from Twist saying he wants to meet. They eventually do, and the spark between them ignites once again. One day, Del Mar writes to Twist asking to move their meeting to November instead of August. His letter comes back with “Deceased” stamped on it.

Shocked, Del Mar calls Twist’s wife Lureen and asks her about what happened. She tells him that Twist was accidentally killed by a tire iron while changing a flat. Lureen also confides that Twist wants his ashes spread at his favorite place, Brokeback Mountain. Del Mar volunteers to spread Twist’s ashes, but Twist’s father insists that he’ll be placed in the family burial plot. Del Mar visits Twist’s childhood bedroom where he finds two shirts, his and one of Twist’s, hang together, Twist’s denim shirt with Del Mar plaid shirt inside. Del Mar takes the shirts with him and leaves. Years after, Del Mar still keeps the two shirts, still hung together, now with Del Mar shirt over Twist’s, and a postcard with a picture of Brokeback Mountain.

Brokeback Mountain is an excellent example of a short story that tells the story of a forbidden and secretive relationship that sparks a wide range of emotions. It is at once sad, beautiful, and heartbreaking.

The Birds by Daphne Du Maurier

The Birds is a story about a disabled farmer named Nat Hocken and the mysterious bird attacks that suddenly happen in the peninsula where they live. Hocken works at the Triggs Farm. He has a wife and two children. The first bird attack occurs at his bedroom window when he gets nipped in hand by birds, drawing blood. More birds flock at his children’s bedroom window. Hocken blames the animals’ restlessness on the sudden change in the weather.

The next morning he notices a great line of seagulls waiting for the tide to rise. The radio warns the public about the odd behavior of the birds which has already spread throughout Britain. This alarms Hocken, and he decides to board up the windows and chimneys of his house as a precaution. Soon, massive flocks of birds attack. A national emergency is declared over the radio, and people are told not to leave their homes. Hocken and his family stay in the kitchen for the night. When they are having dinner, they hear what sounds like airplanes overhead, followed by the sound of planes crashing. The bird attacks die down, and Hocken theorizes that the birds will only attack at high tide.

The next day, radio broadcasts are silent. The tides die down, and Hocken goes out to get supplies from his neighbors. He finds piles of dead birds around the houses; the ones alive peer at him from a distance. Hocken walks to the farm where he is employed, only to find Mr. Trigg, Mrs. Trigg, and their workman, Jim, dead. He also discovers the postman’s body by the road. Hocken returns home with the supplies, but the birds attack once again. The story ends with Hocken, smoking his last cigarette, then throwing the empty pack into the fire and watching it burn.

The Birds is a short story that incredibly delivers a metaphor for the aerial bombings in London which happened in World War II. It pictures the relentless attacks from the sky on the innocent and helpless civilian population. It also illustrates man’s helplessness in times of natural disaster, and the futility of trying to fight an act of God.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is about a man and his series of fantasies. It begins with a brave Commander attempting to weather the storm in an “eight-engine Navy hydroplane.” This is nothing more but a fantasy concocted by Walter Mitty who is driving his wife into town to get her hair done. Once he drops his wife off, he gets ready to do the set of errands that she left him, to buy a pair of overshoes. As Mitty goes on, he enters a series of different fantasies, triggered by the things he comes across.

One fantasy involves Mitty becoming a doctor and saves the life of a millionaire and a friend of the president. In another, he is a great shot with a pistol in the middle of a trial. And in another, he is an Air Captain, willing to put his life on the line for his own country. The fantasy is cut short by the arrival of Mrs. Mitty, who chastises him for not wearing his overshoes. They leave the hotel and head to a drug store. Mrs. Mitty goes in as Walter is left outside. He imagines being lined up against a firing squad and faces it bravely.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is an interesting read with a lead character who people can identify with. Mitty, much like most of us, dreams of being an extraordinary individual yet fails to live up to the standards he holds himself to. The short story asks its readers about the extent of how one molds their own identity. How much of it is through one’s own choices and actions and how much come from what people think. The story shows us a man with multiple ineptitudes, be a dashing rogue in his fantasies. In this story, who really has control over Mitty’s true personality: Himself, or the people around him?

How do you structure a short story?

Every story is built around in some form of logic, whether it may be explicit or not. Regardless of the length, format, or style of delivery, short stories follow a pattern or story arc. This pattern closely follows the story’s plot.

Many people say that the basic structure for a short story is divided into three parts: the beginning, middle, and end. Although this is true, some parts can still get confused and mixed up, making the reader lose interest.

To give you a more thorough framework in making short stories, here are five parts of a short story’s structure.

1. Exposition

This serves as your introduction or the part where you introduce your story. It covers the 5 W’s of a story. The five W’s are the Who, What, When, Where, and Why.

2. Rising action

This is the part where your main character faces a conflict that he/she must face and resolve. The act of resolving the conflict will serve as the rising action on the story.

3. Climax

This part is the highest point of your story. After the tension created by resolving the conflict of the story, your character will now reach the climax. It serves as the turning point for your character. It prompts whether your character was successful or not in trying to resolve the conflict.

4. Falling action

Also known as the “denouement,” falling action is where the tension starts to fall. It wraps up the conflict and the character’s attempt to resolve it.

5. Resolution

And finally, the resolution. This serves as the conclusion of your story. It could either be a happy ending or a sad one, depending on your plot and genre. This part wraps up the entire story.

Why should I enter a short story competition?

Entering competitions can be nerve-racking, and a short-story competition is no exception. You may think that everyone else will be Insanely good — but unless you’re entering high-end competitions (like the Bridport Prize), you’ll probably find that the other writers entering the contest aren’t at the high standard you’d expect.

There are a lot of reasons why you should enter a short story competition, especially if you love writing short stories. Aside from the most common primary goal which is winning and earning a prize, (I know that feels great), you’ll also get the chance of having your work published in a magazine or any written publication. You don’t always have to win first place to get your story published. Even runners-up have the chance. To put it simply, competitions will allow you to gain exposure. Having your story published could open a lot of opportunities.

Entering competitions can also help you improve your writing skills. Contests often have deadlines and criteria that need to be met. This rules could enforce discipline on you as a writer. Some competitions also provide feedback. This can be helpful, especially when you’re just starting to get into writing short stories. Constructive criticism can be an excellent catalyst to help you become a better writer.

Although certain factors could make you think twice about joining competitions, like registrations costs, lack of time, fear, etc., it’s still worth giving it a try. You know what they say, once you put your heart into something, you can definitely succeed.

Go on, challenge yourself. Write the best short story you can.

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