A short story presents a fork in the road—there is no turning back.

Begin and end with moving action (plot). (Repeated action = character)

After-shadowing s.

(like Foreshadowing but it only makes sense afterwards)

Techniques of Suspense

  • mystery>curiosity>explanation
  • conflict>uncertainty>explanation
  • tension>anticipation>fulfillment (the most effective)

Tension is saying something is going to happen then putting it off.

Emotions of a character can be communicated to the reader as expressed or suppressed.

Action reveals character.

In a short story, as opposed to a novel, theme and plot are interwoven.

Plot is the major character going through action to something happening to him that changes him.

Address from theme from the first line (or even better the title).

Writing is discovery, not of what comes next, but of how all the elements of the story fit together.

Point of View is a focusing tool.

Point of view character ends up being the moved character.

Choose setting that reflects theme and foreshadows action.


The action at the end of a story must be both in character and beyond character—Flannery O’Conner 


At my desk next morning I held my pen and hunched my shoulders and leaned my head down, physically trying to look more deeply into the page of the notebook. I did this for a moment before writing, as a batter takes practice swings while he waits in the on-deck circle. In that moment I began what I call vertical writing, rather than horizontal. I had never before thought in these terms. But for years I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward; now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could. —Andre Dubus


Beginning, Middle, End

     When you begin a story and while you’re reading it, it should seem as if you’re moving from left to right: alternatives to the character’s fate and to the plot’s action seem open, possible, available. But when you’ve finished the story and look back, the action should seem inevitable, as if you’d moved from right to left.

     What the beginning of a short story should do, what the beginning of most successful modern short stories usually do, is begin to state the theme of the story right from the very first line. This can be done by a bit of descriptive writing designed as well to establish the setting or the mood, or even by a line of dialogue.

   Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” for example is a story about age and the fear of death. Throughout there is a thread of imagery associating light with life and death with dark, and the old man sitting in the shadow establishes this in the very first sentence:

It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.

   Plot never gets that complicated in its development in a short story so a better term for what happens in the middle is a complication or ambiguity of theme. It is the escalation of conflict between the results of choices that I mentioned earlier. The middle ends with the movement of the character toward one or the other of these, which leads to the climax at the end of the middle.

    The end doesn’t require a long summary of what happened afterwards as in a novel. The short story need only tell us what happened and let us draw conclusions as to its significance for the character, for the reader. Whatever resolution occurs at the end is not so likely these days to be brought about by some final development of the plotting as it is by the introduction of some thematic note: a new image or symbol (of ,say, hopefulness or despair) or by a bit of dialogue or description of a new attitude. All there must be is enough for a careful reader, so long as its connection with the story is, upon analysis, clear. The contemporary short story writer need make no more explanations in his endings than in his beginnings. But the one unforgivable sin in writing is to be deliberately obscure.

   The final whole story will be the result of many conscious and unconscious decisions about method, made by the writer. One factor, for instance, that’s always present in determining method is any special aptitude or knowledge that the writer may have: if he’s good at dialogue, for instance, he’s unlikely to want to spend much time rendering in detail a sequence of a man alone, of if he’s had experiences in a certain room or city and wants to describe it, he will try to set one of his episodes in it.


Point of View

   Point of view accomplishes two very important things. First, like a motion picture camera, it establishes the closeness or distance we as readers have from the characters. First person gives maximum intimacy. But we may not want that (especially if the character is very different from the reader and that kind of association will not seem natural). Third person objective (not knowing any of the characters’ thoughts) is the most distant. It is the panorama, the historic sweep. Identifying with one of the third person participants and knowing his or her thoughts is somewhere in between.

   But that brings up the second thing point of view accomplishes. It is not only a way of providing the reader with information it is also a way of holding it back—we don’t know what is on a character’s mind. And here we have some freedom. We must stick with our basic choice of first or third person for the entire story, but in a given scene we can alter the vantage point slightly, giving or not giving thoughts and dialogue or only giving one or the other of those things without describing the action. We hold back so the reader jumps further in, imagining these things in a way which he or she will discover may or may not be correct.

   When in doubt use third person point of view and write as if the story is happening in the past (that is a convention readers accept without thinking about it. The words of dialogue are always in the present so having the narrative be in the past tense creates a nice contrast that adds to the dynamics of the piece).




5 thoughts on “SHORT STORY MAGIC – Part 5

  1. These are wonderful lessons and practical, too. I’ve visited these pages before, but not in awhile. For now, I’m using them as guides for poetry growth. Maybe someday I’ll get to writing short stories. So many miles to go…, but it’s the journey, not the destination, so there’s hope. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Linda. I wrote short stories in high school (instead of what?) and only got back to them a couple years ago, but I love the form. Doing them teaches you so much. John

  2. Plot and theme. Plot reveals action while theme is what the reader will connect with personally….sort of a universal thing like….fear of abandonment….all politicians are corrupt? And all plot must write toward this…..reveal this…support this? With this in mind, I have looked over the short stories I have written and see that most of them lacked this…theme…in a strong way….it was simply a story being told….but they lacked something that was universal in connection. The ones that did have this thing called theme, I considered my best and never knew why…. Thanks for the new pair of eyes.

  3. Whenever I haven’t visited in a while, I regret it. Now I want to rewrite at least one story I’ve always liked but never been able to sell, just applying the lessons in this article. Thank you again.

    I bought ROSEBUD and am impressed by the quality of its contents. It does, however, make me feel my age. I’m too old to fit in with the style that seems to be the vernacular these days, I think. Discouraging. Fortunately, my online magazine editor seems not to mind for my book reviews an occasional essays. Fiction is another thing.
    Is it desperation, or need for therapy that is making me turn to poetry?

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