What Makes a Compelling Short Story?

Track lanes 1-6 at sunset surrounded by green grass

Happy Short Story Month, everyone! No two scholars agree on what makes a compelling short story, but many critics and writers agree on one thing: short stories are hard to write.

They are akin to the 800 meter “dash” from my Track & Field days. To be clear, the 800 meter race is anything but a dash: it is an extensive and grueling experience. This middle distance event demands the endurance of a long-distance event (aka, the novel) with the bursts of a quick sprints (aka, the poem). It is the impossible race. It is the race that requires a strong start, a strong middle, and a strong end. It is the race your high school coach asks you to try “for fun” as extra training at a low-stakes dual meet.

Perhaps you finish last with what some athletes call the “pity clap” from the stands. It is humbling. It is exhausting. And it is hard. Can you gather that I wasn’t very fast with the 800-meter event? You are quite right. And yes, the 800-meter experience is like the process of writing a short story.

3 Key Components of the Short Story

Some sources report that the short story is between 5,000 to 10,000 words, with longer works moving towards novella territory; but the lines there are murky and not universal. As a writer or reader, why run towards a short story? And what makes a compelling one?

I offer some thoughts below as a lover of short stories, and by no means, an expert.

Brevity

Brevity is a key component of short stories. There is, quite literally, a cap on how many words you can use to tell the story. What does a two-page short story look like and does it hold its own shape? Professor of Literature at Bard College, Francine Prose, might recommend Isaac Babel’s two-page short story Crossing into Poland, according to a post in Fold Magazine about 10 Short Story Authors You Should Be Reading.

Brevity forces writers to say less with more. How do writers whittle a short story into the essential? How does the short length affect the pacing of the story? That is where the art lays.

As novelist and short story writer Daisy Johnson writes in her 2019 article, in The Guardian, “Perhaps the best thing about short stories is that they are short. It is time we stop apologising for their brevity and begin celebrating it.”*

Unpredictability

So many short stories take readers on quite a journey in a short space. Take Amy Silverberg’s “Suburbia” for example, which starts with a father-daughter bet on a fifteenth birthday and ends with a magical realism twist a mere 12 pages later. Silverberg’s short story can be found in The Southern Review as well as The Best American Short Stories (2018), edited by the marvelous Roxane Gay.`

Ray Bradbury is iconic for short stories that are bizarre, unsettling, and thought-provoking. I remember reading “The Veldt” in 6th-grade and being so disturbed at the children’s final act against their parents. Unpredictable, upon a first read, but the magic of short stories is that on your second read, you will pick up all the subtle gems that the writer placed with finesse, all throughout the plot.

Sudden Endings

Ever read a short story that ended with such an unexpected last sentence that you were left looking around and over your shoulder for some more explanation? That sudden ending is what keeps me tearing through short story collections, and then returning a second time to read more slowly, and chew on each word.

What are some collections of short stories that you love? Reading contemporary short stories by Danielle Valore Evans and Carmen Maria Machado is a fabulous way to dive in, as are the short stories of modern writers like James Baldwin and James Joyce. If you are looking for iconic short stories, LitHub is a great place to start exploring the possibilities.

What do you think makes short stories so compelling? Is it the pacing? The exquisite use of language? Or perhaps the feeling of a phantom limb within your mind, as you try to construct the aftermath of the story? The team at Elyssar Press welcomes your ideas.

References

*Johnson, Daisy. “The World at an Angle: Reasons to Love Short Stories.”ProQuest, Mar 06, 2019, http://jpllnet.sfsu.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/blogs-podcasts-websites/world-at-angle-reasons-love-short-stories/docview/2188499538/se-2?accountid=13802.

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Track lanes 1-6 at sunset surrounded by green grass

What Makes a Compelling Short Story?

The 800-meter dash (aka, the short story) demands the endurance of a long-distance event (aka, the novel) with the bursts of a quick sprints (aka, the poem). It is the impossible race.

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