Today the Field of Words short story competition opens for the first time. Check out the Writing Competitions page for further information. We’re looking forward to reading stories that engage us, move us, make us think, and take us to another place. On that note, I thought it appropriate to share some thoughts about the key ingredients that help make a short story ‘great’.
When I began thinking about this topic, it struck me that I’d most likely be offering subjective observations – after all, what makes a story ‘great’ for me, may not make a story ‘great’ for others. Consider how often you may have expressed admiration for a movie, only to find that the same film simply didn’t float your friend’s boat. Personal tastes and interests will always influence how (and to what extent) we engage with a narrative. However, I think there are a few key attributes shared by great stories. Let’s explore them:
Quality Writing: You can’t go past ‘great writing’ when discussing the features of a great story. In attempting to describe this sort of writing, I’m going to borrow from John Burroughs who, in Field and Study, says the secret of great writing ‘…is not in the choice of words; it is in the use of words, their combinations, their contrasts, their harmony or opposition, their order of succession, the spirit that animates them.’ This is one reason why Ernest Hemingway is my favourite writer of fiction, including the short story form – his ability to craft expression that oozes poetic simplicity and aesthetic balance is, in my opinion, unsurpassable. Take a look at Hills Like White Elephants, for a taste of his masterful technique. Another gorgeous piece by the same author is Cat in the Rain.
A great story demonstrates exceptional judgement on behalf of the author whereby every word chosen matters and contributes purposefully to the story’s greater whole.
An Identifiable Theme: Well written and engaging stories usually have a theme readers can connect with. When considering a story’s theme, we need to ask ourselves, ‘What is this story trying to tell me?’ And, ‘What am I left thinking about after reading the last line?’ Resonant themes – those that stay with readers long after the story has been finished – aren’t ‘told’; they develop as the narrative unfolds, prompting us to ask questions about the issues that rise to a story’s surface, or linger between its lines.
The point of embedding a story with an identifiable theme isn’t to ‘preach’; instead, it’s about allowing readers to extract meaning in a way that somehow relates to their own lives. For this reason, the interpretation of a story’s theme will be a little different for every reader. To get an idea of how accomplished writers generate thought-provoking themes, take a look at William Carlos Williams’ story The Use of Force, or The Fly by Katherine Mansfield.
Creating Characters that Readers Care About: Another essential component of a great short story is having a character, or characters, with whom readers can empathise. This doesn’t mean a story needs to have ‘likeable’ characters; rather, it’s about having characters that compel readers to make an emotional investment. If readers don’t care about what happens to a character, then chances are they’re not going to keep reading. Fascinating characters that hold our attention need not be heroic, in the traditional sense of the word. On the contrary, it’s often the case that relatable characters are well-shaded, exhibiting strengths and weaknesses, virtues and flaws. Engaging characters have something of value to ‘show’ readers – whether that be a glimpse of their psyche, an insight into their choices, or an understanding of what makes them tick.
An example of a vulnerable yet truly intriguing character can be found in Pin by Robert McCammon. I dare you to try reading this story without caring about what happens to the anti-hero. Another example of effective characterisation can be found in A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner, in which the main character, Emily is a mysterious recluse.
Elements of Conflict: Last but by no means least, great short stories are fuelled by conflict – and, as you’ve probably guessed, I’m not referring to an obligatory fight scene or explosive car crash. I mean that compelling stories usually contain characters faced with obstacles and difficulties that need to be negotiated and, sometimes, overcome. For if a character doesn’t have desires and goals that are somehow thwarted – at least temporarily – then why should readers care about what happens to them?
Well developed conflict is threaded through a story in a way that often leads to a crescendo or climactic point of tension. The conflict may be clear and overt, smacking readers in the face from the get-go, such as that conveyed in Ray Bradbury’s Kaleidoscope; or it may be more subtle, as demonstrated within Doris Lessing’s timeless narrative, Through the Tunnel, where she smuggles conflict into her character’s choices and behaviour. Either way, plausible and compelling conflict not only has a ‘cause and effect’ impact on how the narrative unfolds, it’s also essential for capturing and holding the interest of readers.
There are no doubt other attributes that contribute to great storytelling, but, for me, these are the top three. For further reading on how to write great short stories, take a look at Tips on How to Write a Great Short Story offered by Kurt Vonnegut. You may have some different ideas to those presented here. Share your thoughts below and tell us what makes a story ‘great’ in your eyes ~ Eileen.