What is a short story? Some write short stories which are like photographs – here is a picture of Jane, an interesting character. And that’s it. The author says it’s a short story. Some writers send in very literary stories, perhaps clever writing, perhaps revealing an interesting situation, but no conclusion.

A friend and I used to sit in the back of the creative writing course I took in the eighties. The professor would read a story and tell us it was an excellent literary story. My friend and I would look at each other. Nothing happened in the story and it aroused no feelings in us.

Here’s what I’ve learned a short story is:

1. A Sympathetic or engaging lead character who dominates the action and from whose point of view the action unfolds.

2. An urgent problem which confronts this lead and requires of him or her a protracted response in solving this problem.

3. A series of complications which arise, usually directly out of the leads efforts to solve the problem, which further aggravate that problem

4. A crisis which results from mounting complications where it appears that the lead’s efforts to solve the problem are doomed to failure.

5. A resolution in which the lead solves the problem, or in which he fails, while gaining some insight as a result of that failure.



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  2. Hi Ed

    Based on your definition, I’m not sure if my recent blog post is a short story or not. If it isn’t, then what is it (piece of cr*p is not one of the options)? It is based on a true story but told in a fictional way through my mother’s voice.

    Take care and thanks for your daily lessons.

    Ron Young

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  4. Not at all! I liked the points you made about what a short story should contain and since my post was just a bit of rambling, I thought I’d offer my readers a link with some actual content! Thanks for the post. 🙂

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  7. I’ll send comments/ suggestions based on kids’ here ESL needs shortly – nice basic stuff, though. Meantime, you couldn’t waterboard my Beloved Granny enuf to be even ‘Once Upon a Time’ a R.C. Cleric. 😀

  8. I “edited-revised down” your 5 short story elements for one of my very bright young classes. Students here in HK have been heavily resisting a shift to a “literature-based” curriculum from an English as Foreign Language model; Hong Kong’s secondary English has been stuck in the old “grammar-translation” language teaching model. Served colonial British purposes well enough — selection rather than real learning. Over the years, some had been able to get “rewards” of decent exam results and careers, but ended up mostly not very good with the language, and rarely appreciate. Most resent the tedium and fear the mystification. Anyway, now with mine, I’m pushing story-line continuity and suspense-building.They’ve shown me their scatter-brained MTV-watching, surreal pseudo-narrative penchant, and I don’t mince words in critique. My marks and comments assault careless, lazy, usually nonsensical writing, and some of them at this elite, elitist Christian Brothers school, Lasalle College haven’t taken it well. So, in addition to the above, I think kids here need to describe character and setting with concrete, sensory detail, appealing to specific intended audiences’ probable associations with language-choice and image. Not easy for them to do, since the structure of their own language and their own cultural associations are so very different from English “literature” (Roald Dahl). And many are just apathetic, preferring memorizing, copying and guessing at multiple choice questions. Thanks for ideas.

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