How to Write a Short Story

James Scott Bell

A novelist friend recently asked, What is it that defines a short story? What’s the key to writing one? How is it different from a novel or novella?
My “boys in the basement” have been working on it, and the other day sent up a message. It said, “A short story is about one shattering moment.”
I pondered that for awhile. Could it really be so? What about the different genres? There are literary short stories (e.g., Raymond Carver), but also horror (Stephen King), science fiction (Harlan Ellison), crime (Jeffery Deaver) and the like. They couldn’t all be about one shattering moment, could they?

I decided to have a cheeseburger and forget the whole thing.
But the boys would not let me drop it. And now I think they’re right (as usual). So let’s take it apart.
When I took a writing workshop with one of the recognized masters of the modern short story, Raymond Carver, I found his genius lay in the “telling detail,” a way to illuminate, with a minimalist image or line of dialogue, a shattering emotional moment in the life of a character.
The story we studied in his workshop was “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” A married couple, middle class with two young kids, have a conversation one night. The wife brings up an incident at a party a couple of years before. Slowly, we realize she needs to confess something, needs to be forgiven. She’d slept with another man that night. That is the shattering moment in the story, the husband’s realization of what his wife did.
This happens in the middle. The rest of the story is about the emotional aftermath of that moment. Thus, the structure of the story looks like this:
This is the same structure as Hemingway’s classic, “Hills Like White Elephants.” In this story about a couple conversing at a train station, the shattering emotional moment occurs inside the woman. It’s when she accedes to her boyfriend’s desire that she have an abortion (amazingly, the word abortion is never used in the story). We see what’s happened to her almost entirely via dialogue. In fact, she has a line much like the husband’s in the Carver story. She says, “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?”
We know at the end of both these stories that the characters will never be the same, that life for them has been ineluctably altered. That’s what a shattering moment does.
Structurally, this moment can come at the end of the story. When it works, it’s like an emotional bomb going off. Two literary stories that do this are “The Swimmer” by John Cheever, and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates. That structure looks like this:
Now let’s move to the genre short story. Here, the same idea applies. The shattering moment is usually one that is outside (i.e., a plot moment) as opposed to inside (i.e., a character moment). Often, that moment is a “twist” at the end of the story. The most famous example is, no doubt, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”
Jeffery Deaver is a master of this type (see his collections Twistedand More Twisted.) Get your hands on his story “Chapter and Verse” (from More Twisted) to see what I mean.  It’s one of my all-time favorites.
My recent crime short story, “Autumnal,” follows this pattern as well. We think the story is going one way, but at the end it is quite another.
This is also the structure most often used in The Twilight Zone. Think about some of the classic episodes:
“To Serve Man.” Remember the shattering shout at the end? “It’s a cook book!”
“Time Enough at Last.” Always voted the most memorable episode, because of its heartbreaking twist at the end. This is the one where the loner with the thick glasses emerges after nuclear war has killed everyone, but now has time enough at last to read all the books he wants. And then…
“The Eye of the Beholder.” This one blew me away as a kid. It’s the one where the surgeons, in shadows all the way through, are working to save the disfigured face of a patient. One of the all time great twists.
This pattern is just like the one described above for literary short stories, only now it’s a shattering plot twist at the end:

And, you guessed it, you can also do a story with the shattering moment somewhere in the opening pages, and work out the aftermath in the rest of the tale. Lawrence Block’s “A Candle for the Bag Lady” is like that (You can find this story in Block’s collection, Enough Rope). The structure looks like this:

So there you have it. If you want to write a short story, find that moment that is emotionally life-changing, or craftily plot-twisting. Then write everything around that moment. Structurally, it’s simple to understand. But the short story is, in my view, the most difficult form of fiction to master. So why try? Two reasons: First, when it works, it can be one of the most powerful reading experiences there is. And second, with digital self-publishing, there’s an actual market for these works again. The short story form was pretty much dead outside of a few journals. Now, in digital, you can make some Starbucks money with them. That’s what the Force of Habit and Irish Jimmy Gallagher stories have done for me. And when I put together a collection, I expect to make even more.
And nothing will give your writing chops a workout like a short story. Why not make them part of your career plan?

Size Matters

by Michelle Gagnon

burritoA confession: I’m not a big short story reader. I’ve gone through phases where I was on a Chandler or Munro kick, but by and large I tend to read novels. Recently I’ve been judging a short story contest, however, and it’s been an interesting experience. What I’ve discovered is that when it comes to crime fiction, the short story format is apparently a trickier beast to wrestle down.

The stories that fail appear to fall into a few categories (food-related; humor me):

  • The Grande Burrito: The author crammed it all in, and what could have been expanded into a full manuscript has been abridged. These stories tend to open with some lovely lyrical passages before morphing into a rapid-fire ending that usually involves an information dump on the final page. In these cases, I get the sense that the writer bit off more than they could chew. Rather than focusing on a smaller, self-contained story, their scope was too broad and it ended up being a hot mess.
  • The Chinese Food Syndrome. The opposite problem: these stories left me wanting more. Not enough happened, or the scope was too small. The best short stories are self-contained, hewn down to the bare essentials, and when you turn the last page you find yourself fully satisfied. You’ve been told just what you need to know, and everything was resolved in a way that was satisfying. The perfect dessert, if you will.
  • The Pancake: Everything is flat. Two-dimensional characters whose motivation is never clear, a plot that doesn’t make sense, nothing seems to gel. You don’t need much to describe a character; the best writers can do it in a sentence. So for me to go through an entire story and come away with no sencarverse of the characters is inexcusable. One of my all-time favorite stories is “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver:
    • This blind man, feature this, he was wearing a full beard! A beard on a blind man! Too much, I say.

That one passage not only describes the blind man, it also speaks volumes about the main character, telling you everything you need to know to make the final passage of the story transcendent.

  • The Filler: Like a hamburger without the bun. These stories invariably involve characters from a recurring series. Ideally, these stores should offer another perspective on them and their actions, whetting your appetite enough to draw you into following them for a full book (or ten). But far too often Thrillerthese are an ad masquerading as a story. I love vignettes told from the point of view of a different character in the book (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a favorite of mine). Our own Clare did this recently, as did J.A. Konrath and Lee Child in the Thriller Anthology. For me, those stories work. Less appealing is something that’s clearly excerpted from a book.

Mind you, many of the stories I loved, and all for different reasons. Most offered a glimpse of characters at a crossroad. The story depicts a flash from their lives when the crime they encounter, whether expected or unexpected, defines them in just a few short pages. A standoff in a drugstore, or a murder in an alley. Not that it has to take place in a short time frame, but by and large I don’t need to see their entire lives, and I really don’t enjoy a Christie-style parlor room “this is what happened” scene at the end. Just give it to me straight.

So what do you think makes a strong short story? And is it a tougher format for crime fiction?