Short stories are a powerful medium. In just a few thousand words, they send us on meaningful emotional journeys that linger with us for the rest of our lives. “The Gift of the Magi” illuminates the tender beauty of selflessness, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” exposes us to the torture of a guilty conscience. As much as I love the drawn-out impact of a novel, the quick punch of a short story has an appeal all its own.
But what makes a short story effective and memorable?
Simplicity. Every detail pushes toward the same goal, and anything that doesn’t gets removed. This principle shows up clearly in our 2018 and 2019 short story contest winners: “Backstays of the Sun” and “Ella.” Each piece displays four characteristics of simple but strong short stories that can help you understand how to craft your own.
1. Small Cast
A short story has limited space, practically speaking. You can’t expect to develop half a dozen characters and connect readers to them within a smattering of paragraphs. That’s the domain of the novel. Instead, restrict the POV to one character (or, in rare cases, two).
In “Backstays of the Sun,” Chelsea Pennington writes entirely from the perspective of the protagonist, Thomas, allowing readers to ensconce themselves in his spiritual struggles. In “Ella,” Kate Flournoy adopts a similar tactic, but she steps away from Travis’s POV at the end so readers can watch through the eyes of his daughter as he carries out a difficult decision.
In both stories, the narrative revolves around the protagonist’s thoughts and emotions. The stories belong to those characters. When you’re shaping your own short story, ask yourself whose mind and soul you want readers to experience the events through. No matter how interesting, every other character’s POV must go.
2. Central Conflict
As I mentioned in the previous section, short stories don’t afford you much room to wander. The guideline of “less is more” applies to conflict too. That doesn’t mean you should resort to the most obvious or clichéd situations, but that you expend all the story’s energy on a single problem the protagonist must resolve.
Every moment in “Backstays of the Sun” fixates on the tension between Thomas’s need for control and unforeseen tragedies. I’m reminded of Matt’s hero complex in The Promise of Jesse Woods. Comparing these two works can show you how to keep a short story simple. The Promise of Jesse Woods tackles multiple conflicts, and as a novel, it has the capacity to do so. As a short story, however, “Backstays of the Sun” avoids side quests and stays locked onto one main conflict. Similarly, “Ella” maintains razor-sharp focus on the battle between grief and survival that rages within Travis.
Identify the core weakness or challenge your protagonist needs to overcome, and cut any action, dialogue, or character that doesn’t build on it.
3. Consistent Emotional Tone
With short stories, you have to engage readers in a matter of minutes, and the best way to accomplish that is through emotions that are universal to every human being. Emphasize joy, sorrow, fear, or another relatable emotion that supports your story’s theme. Though “Backstays of the Sun” and “Ella” both feature characters who express a wide range of feelings, each story has a distinct, overarching tone.
In “Backstays of the Sun,” Thomas’s desire to prevent negative outcomes is rooted in his love for his wife, Jamie, so every worry and regret surrounding her also affects readers. “Ella” introduces Travis in a touching scene where he’s grappling with grief, and the rest of the story explores how it influences his mindset.
Emotions are complex, but to lead up to a compelling ending, your short story’s tone shouldn’t fluctuate.
4. Poignant Ending
The unique advantage of a short story is its ability to strike hard and fast. Plot twists can help you overturn readers’ assumptions and hammer the point home, but they aren’t necessary. You aren’t writing the ending of Brandon Sanderson’s next novel.
“Backstays of the Sun” and “Ella” are about personal transformation. Neither story contains major plot twists, but every scene is potent nonetheless. And both stories use the same tactic: bring the protagonist to the brink of change, then end with a measure of ambiguity.
Novels tend to be plot driven and have to tie everything into a neat bow or readers will leave dissatisfied. But short stories, especially ones about growth, are character driven. Readers follow the protagonist as he gradually recognizes the lie he’s believed and then the curtains close. Anything else he might say or do isn’t relevant. The process of change is the story.
Don’t downplay or deviate from your protagonist’s arc. The strength of your ending depends on the depth of his journey far more than the plot.
Set the Focus
Short stories are not landscapes. They’re micro photography of individual leaves or flower petals. They zoom in on a tiny portion of the human experience and magnify it for readers to enjoy. Don’t try to capture the universe when its reflection can be seen in a drop of dew.
Writers often flounder when they begin a short story. Since short stories don’t require significant brainstorming and plotting, sometimes the first draft comes out haphazard and lopsided. That’s okay. Once the idea is on the page, you can refine it. Keep your cast small, define the main conflict, tinge the narrative with relatable emotions, and wrap it all into a natural (but perhaps open-ended) conclusion.
Short stories are complicated to write. But they should be simple to read. If you tack this rule somewhere near your desk, you’ll remember not to weigh down your short story—or your creativity—with the expectations of a novel.
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.