What Makes a Great Short Story?

Blown: what happens to your mind when you read a really great short story.

A short story is more than just a “little” story. It’s more than just a training module for a novel. A good short story is enjoyable, gives you a moment in a character’s life, points out something interesting. A great short story is unforgettable; it can change your life, the way you think about your life, the way you think about the world.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”. Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”. James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” (buy it - trust me). These are some great short stories, each in their own way. Regardless of how short it is, a short story can be revisited, and reveal new angles and nuances you didn’t see before. Regardless of style or genre, a great short story can wake you up in the middle of the night as your subconscious rolls it over in your dreams and finds fresh perspectives on life and the world. It can spark debates and discussions; it can be beloved or it can be banned. Maybe both.

Obviously, a great short story is “well-written”. What does that mean? What a horrible question. It means it uses the language in a fresh way - twists meanings and metaphor to help us see something anew. Or it means the language gets out of the way entirely, fading into the background as it shines the spotlight on characters and ideas.

It means it follows a perfect dramatic arc, from hook to rising action to climax and resolution. Or it means it throws all that to the wind in such a way as to make its reader question whether up is down and black is white.

It means the characters are three-dimensional, relatable, sympathetic. Or it means there are no characters at all, invoking the reader to step inside the storyworld and take on the mantle of protagonist.

You get my drift here. I teach creative writing a lot - there are the basics of short story that a lot of students master, and they get top marks for them. And those are good short stories. They’re stories that can go on to be published, that people can read on commutes, that will be enjoyable and maybe even thought-provoking.

Every once in a while, though, I get a great short story. As a teacher, as an editor, as a publisher, I can help with the basics, but I can’t claim credit for the greatness. That’s something the author does that’s unexpected - something that pushes boundaries in a way I hadn’t considered, something that shows me a portion of the world or a portion of myself that I didn’t know existed.

How do you write that great short story? I don’t know, exactly. The best approach I can offer is to keep writing good short stories, honing those skills and searching for voice and character and metaphor - and eventually, trip over the edge into greatness.

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