Thursday, May 17, 2012

What Makes a Short Story Short ?

Our third Wednesday Guest, Susan Malone, is here today with an interesting look at the short story form.

Those of us who write fiction are often drawn to both novels and short stories, although most folks will say they love one over another.  Many write both, and many focus only on one form to the exclusion of the other. And while we can all point to authors who are proficient at both, in reality that’s tough to do. 

Because they are different art forms.  Yes, both require wonderful prose, well-drawn characters, and a storyline that takes off from jump and keeps the reader’s interest until THE END appears. Sounds pretty similar so far. But where most writers get tripped up is in thinking that a short story is just a shorter form of fiction than a novel. And therein lies the rub. Because short fiction is its own beast, rather than a condensed full-length work, and what makes it a short story goes to the heart of our matter.

Similarities do exist between short stories and chapters or scenes in novels. The structure of each, while not exactly the same, follows the same pattern. We have scene setting, conflict rising, that conflict coming to a climax, then a period of denouement and resolution.  But in a novel, the drawing to a close of one scene or chapter sets up the next one.  And many times, the denouement and resolution don’t even come in until later in the book (although they do have to come together!). 

You don’t get this luxury in a short piece. While, as in a novel, we have to have a beginning, middle, and end, the short story must have a point to it all on its own. That point must be completely encapsulated   in the scope of this one story. That seems to go without saying, but from the writer’s side of the desk, it gets murky in the mind. Even if you’re writing a series of short pieces based on one theme, or one set of characters, each story has to stand entirely on its own—as if that’s all your reader will ever see.  

A novel is often a slice of life. One can even argue that Lonesome Dove in all its length was just one slice of life—Gus and Call at their best—and McMurtry wrote oh, Lord, I forget how many prequels and sequels to it!  Short fiction is also a slice of life, and it, too, must expose a bigger theme, speak to something universal, touch us with understanding.  Not only do you have very little time to get this done, but the feel of it is different, too, in that what is often most important is exactly that—the feel of it.  And that has to stay consistent throughout.  

At the crux of the issue is that raison de’ etre of a short story has to be powerful.  The story’s moments (of which novels must be filled as well) must be front and center and occur often.  While every word of a novel counts, in short fiction, each of those words count so much more. And in the end, in a few amount of words, you must have left the reader with an ah-ha epiphany, one stunning second, where she feels what you are conveying through your characters and storyline. Even if she can’t put into words exactly what the story was about, she knows it in her heart. 

And then you know you’ve written something beautiful.


Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has four traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

Posted by Maryann Miller, who loves to read a good short story that touches her heart.

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  1. Oops ... 'raison de'detre (I love that expression) of a short story has to be powerful' ... mine are more like 98 pound weaklings.

  2. Susan, what a lovely description of a true short story! Like the novel, it must touch the heart - but much more quickly and perhaps in a more subtle way. I like this a lot. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Christopher, I'm sure that is not true. (smile)

    Linda, so glad you enjoyed the post. I thought Susan did an excellent job in defining the differences between a short story and a novel.

  4. Great explanation of the differences! Interesting post, thanks!

  5. I love the luxury of writing novel-length works where I can reveal elements gradually in layers. I find writing short stories quite a challenge and I really admire those authors who shine in that genre: Lauri Kubuitsile comes to mind.

  6. Short stories are a bit tricky, getting everything squeezed into them in a small amount of space, without leaving anything hanging. They can be fun, though.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. Short stories really are odd beasts. I just love them. But almost like poetry, they have to be refined and refined, going ever deeper. Not that novels don't, but as y'all are all saying, the slightest slip up can doom the whole story.

    I think what I find most frustrating about writing them is that while a novel's idea can come to me and the rest takes off while writing, a short story has to just descend upon my brain, almost in toto. Yep, quite challenging!

  8. Susan, I like when you said, "...the short story must have a point to it all on its own. That point must be completely encapsulated in the scope of this one story."

    I once heard that to write a short story you need "a thing, and the other thing" (does anyone know this attribution?). For example, "Brokeback Mountain" is about a love affair between gay cowboys, but also about regretting an unloved life. Closely pairing the specific with the metaphoric, while limiting word count, is what gives short stories their beauty and punch.


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