Short stories, as the name suggests, are stories that are shorter in length compared to a novel or a novella. A typical short story can vary from 1000 words to 7000 words. If you want to pursue a career in writing then a short story is the perfect point to start, because you’ve got a whole story – but short. But how should you start studying short stories?
In general, a writer should study short stories from two angles: as a writer and as a reader. As a writer, study the format, parts, themes, and tropes of short stories. As a reader, study why stories work or where promises fall flat. Studying both parts will improve a writer’s skill faster.
Ready to talk about how to study short stories so that you can be a better reader, student, and writer? Let’s do this – we’ll walk you through how to study short stories no matter what your end goal is.
How do you Study a Short Story?
The most important thing about studying short stories is to read as many great short stories as possible, especially the classics. The goal is to familiarize yourself with the best in this genre and observe what has worked for the experts so that you can emulate their work. This practice will help you sharpen your writing skills and compete in the highly competitive literary environment.
While studying the short stories, observe and note how the experts create the setting and how the character arcs deepen and develop as the story progresses. Another important thing to take note of is to see how the point of view changes throughout the story and what tricks are employed to create the anxiety and suspense to hook the readers.
A good starting point will be to study the work of Bret Lott, who is a modern-day master of short stories. Look up his work on the internet and dig in. Added to that, you can also study classic short stories like “The tell-tale heart” by Edgar Allan Poe and “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang.
What are the Requirements of a Short Story?
Short stories generally don’t have many (if any) requirements other than being short in length and therefore quick to read.
That being said, some short stories were written to be submitted to various contests, publications or places that did have listed requirements.
- When you’re studying short stories as a student, it can be fun to know those details (especially if you’re writing a paper).
- If you’re studying short stories for fun, it can be fun to know those behind-the-scenes details so you can talk stories with friends.
- If you’re a writer, then you’ll need to know the submission guidelines as well as the publication’s target audience before you start submitting stories to them. Otherwise, you’re more likely to get a standard rejection template than anything else.
All right – now let’s get into the nitty gritty of some of the parts of short stories.
What are the 6 Elements of a Short Story?
Elements can be thought of as building blocks of a short story, where each building block plays a key role to complete the whole picture. Following are the six important elements that you will find in a short story:
Element #1: Setting
Setting tells the reader about when and where the story is taking place. Unlike a novel, where you will normally observe an all-encompassing setting, short stories can have a rather small and intimate setting like a room or an alley.
Based on its importance to the story, setting can also include the description of social conditions, weather, season and the overall mood of the story. However, some writers, instead of directly mentioning these descriptions, prefer to convey these indirectly using the characters dialogues.
Element #2: Theme
The theme tells the reader about the central idea or a moral that the writer wants to impart. You can base your story on friendship or betrayal or love or hypocrisy. It is possible to have more than one theme in a story.
Usually, authors give an indication in the title about the possible theme of a story by making a promise in the opening of the story. However, some writers tend to only subtly tell the theme of the story to make it open to interpretation for the readers. After all, readers don’t want to be preached to. They want to read, enjoy, and learn at their own pace.
This is why sometimes two people reading the same story end up arguing about the theme of that story.
Element #3: Style
The style of a story has to do with the writer’s approach in writing a particular story. The use of vocabulary, the selection of format (narrative or expository), how’s the imagery being used and the overall feeling of the story.
Another important constituent is the tone. A writer can opt for a dramatic tone, an ironic tone, or a humorous tone based on the atmosphere of the story. Your characters’ personalities can help set the tone of the story based on how they communicate with others (or themselves, if they’ve got a rich inner dialogue/monologue!).
Element #4: Plot
The plot describes the sequence of events that an author plans to develop the story. Plot answers the question of what happens next. Okay, so some authors (who are “pantsers” rather than “planners”) may have the plot drag them around rather than actively planning it. But the plot goes somewhere either way.
The plot centers around the main conflict of the story, elaborating on how it occurred, how the characters reacted, and how it was finally resolved. Short stories, owing to their length, have only one main plotline.
Element #5: Characters
Characters are the essential entities that drive the story. Characters can be people, animals, mythical beings, or even insentient things like cars, spoons, etc.
There are a small number of characters in a short story but as stated above, there has to be a character who plays the protagonist and a character to play the antagonist.
Characters are arguably the most important element in a short story because characters allow the reader to relate to them, to care for them, to support or oppose them and that’s what makes reading a joyous experience.
Pro tip: The rule of thumb I’ve seen and heard that a good short story needs about 250-500 words for every character, plot, and setting in the short story. So if your story is limited to 750 words, don’t have 12 characters.
Element #6: Point of View
Point of view refers to the angle through which the story is narrated. Point of view can be conveyed in the 1st person, 2nd person, or 3rd person. It can also be limited or omniscient.
- In the first person, the story is viewed from the viewpoint of one of the characters.
- In the second person, the readers are addressed using the ‘you’ yours’ pronounce.
- In the third person, the narrator takes the omniscient position who narrates all that is unfolding. In the third person, pronounce like ‘his’, ‘her’, ‘they’ etc are used.
Limited points of view only know what can be seen, felt, or reasoned from a limited perspective, usually from a single point of view. An omniscient perspective can see, feel, and reason all the things.
You can also have an unreliable point of view. For example, if your character is a sociopath (like in “I am not a serial killer” by Dan Wells), then your character will not see things in the neurotypical manner. That will come through in the point of view.
What are the 5 Parts of a Short Story?
Now, there are lots of parts to a short story. But you specifically asked about the five parts to a short story, which is a five-part framework for short stories. So here they are.
Part 1: The introduction
The first is the introduction where characters, as well as the setting of the story, is laid down. In this part, the readers are also given any necessary back story to get the flow going and to help them understand the story better.
In flash fiction, the introduction can be done in as little as 2-3 sentences.
Part 2: Rising action
In this part, the story develops and the conflict is introduced. This is the part where the main character is plunged into the conflict and the level of excitement starts to increase. The series of incidents in the rising action part lead towards the climax.
The rising action still can’t take long in short stories. Most writers get the action going even in the introduction – and they keep it going for about 50-75% of the total word count.
Part 3: The climax
The climax is the part in which the tension and anxiety is at its highest. This is the part in which the story takes a major turn to steer it towards resolution.
The twist in this part makes the reader question about what is going to happen next and will the protagonist be able to resolve the conflict.
The climax of the story usually happens at about 75-80% of the way into the story.
Part 4: Falling action
This part entails the immediate consequences of the events that took place during the climax. This part marks the start of resolution or conclusion where the complexities and troubles of the stories start to fall into place.
This is the part where the protagonist learns from his mistakes and now knows how to resolve the conflict.
This is going to be from about the 75-80% mark to the 90-95% mark in the story or overall word count.
Part 5: Resolution or conclusion
This is the part where all the loose ends are tied up and it focuses on whether or not the protagonist has successfully managed to overcome the conflict.
This is going to be the last 5-10% of your story.
Now, I know it can be fun to tease a sequel or a continuation of the story, but then this isn’t really a short story – it’s a prologue. So keep any teasers for more stories out of the ending!
Keep your short stories self-contained and awesome. Let them pack that emotional punch without the sequel tease.
What Do You Need to Do to Write Good Short Stories?
Short stories need to follow the themes, templates, and tropes of good storytelling while also bending any rules that make sense for the story. Short stories still follow the same formats of longer stories – but are much shorter.
If you have just started writing short stories then the first requirement is to write and practice very hard to improve your writing style. You should not be expecting your first ever story to be published in a renowned magazine. The acceptance rate of most magazines is less than 1%, and it will take time and effort to reach the level where you work can compete with other professional works.
A common saying I’ve heard is this: after you write your first million words, you’ll be ready to start being a writer.
That saying usually applies to aspiring novel writers, though. Even so, expect to write a ton of short stories before things finally click. Reading a lot of good short stories really will help.
If science fiction and fantasy are your jam, check out the Writers of the Future quarterly publications. They have an amazing knack for finding the sci-fi and fantasy writers of the future. Guess they named their publication well, huh?
The second important requirement is to select a genre and plan your story accordingly. You should be familiar with the formula, regarding a particular genre, to keep your reader hooked from the start till the end.
For instance, if you decide to write a thriller, the reader will not read more than a couple of hundred words if the story is poorly paced and if the stakes do not seem appropriate. Similarly, a suspense story should be full of dangers and plot twists to make the readers experience that pleasing dread.
Your story should have a protagonist as well as an antagonist. Sometimes the need for an antagonist is argued where people maintain that antagonist can be shown as a facet of the protagonist. But, experts like Tantra Bensko, who is a gold-medalist writer, argue that the antagonist should be a separate entity whose role will be to stop the protagonist from achieving his/her goals.
Stories are only as good as their characters.
The other requirements can be addressed by asking yourself questions like whether the format would be narrative or expository. Are the dialogues genuine enough to convey the character’s personality? Is there a necessity of including a character’s backstory, given the limited amount of words? If so then at what point of story the background should be told?
Another requirement would include using standard font style (Times New Roman) and font size (12) with double-spaced line spacing.
Your tenses should be consistent and no paragraph should be greater than four to five lines. Moreover, do not forget to backup anything you write.
To confirm whether you have considered the above requirements, it is a good practice to send your work for editing and proofreading before making the final submission.
Remember, your main goal should be to hook your readers right from the first sentence. Your story should take your readers on a transformative journey and only then will they admire your work.
Final Thoughts on Studying and Writing Short Stories
Short stories really are an amazing form of literature. They are deceptively hard to write – and amazingly easy to consume (read).
In my time as a First Reader (slush reader) for the online magazine Deep Magic, I read thousands of stories (I lost count haha!). I learned more about writing short stories by reading for them than I did any other way.
So if you want to hone your craft even faster, go be a slush reader for a magazine. It’s typically an unpaid position, but it opens so many doors as both a reader and a writer. I found so many amazing new authors to read – and love. And I learned a lot of things about short stories.
I learned a lot of cool writing tips. And I learned a few things not to do. But mostly? I learned to love even more stories. So get out there and study more short stories. And don’t forget to read poetry, too. Because reading poetry is a fantastic way to improve your writing – whether it’s as a short storyteller or as a novelist.
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Ready to jumpstart your study of short stories? Make sure you check out the Deep Magic Anthology #2 (click here to see the best prices on Amazon). Not only will you read some amazing stories, but you’ll get to see my name on the title page with the other amazing First Readers. And it’s a really amazing anthology – I’m sure you’ll like it. So go give it a read.
When learning about anything, it’s important to learn from various reputable sources. These are the sources I used in this article and my personal research to be more informed.
- “Elements of a Story.” Rcboe.Org, 2021, https://www.rcboe.org/cms/lib010/GA01903614/Centricity/Domain/4395/Elements%20of%20a%20Story.pdf.
- “How To Write A Short Story — Literacy Ideas”. Literacy Ideas, 2021, https://www.literacyideas.com/how-to-write-a-short-story.
- “Requirements For Writing A Short Story Properly”. Medium, 2021, https://curiosityneverkilledthewriter.com/requirements-for-writing-a-short-story-properly-5050f993157.
- “The Seven Elements of Fiction.” Scribophile, 2021, https://www.scribophile.com/blog/the-seven-elements-of-fiction.
And a huge thank-you to the board members of Deep Magic for letting me be a First Reader for the most amazing digital magazine in existence. I’ll miss Deep Magic as both a First Reader and as a regular reader, but I understand why the project is being retired.