What Makes a Good Short Story

Further to the discussion in the comments box of my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about short stories and specifically about how to end them. A few days ago I went to the Edinburgh Writers’ Club where writer Rosemary Gemmell spoke to the group about writing short stories. Particularly useful for me was her advice on how to achieve a sense of resolution in stories with an open ending. Below is a summary of Rosemary’s talk:

  • When writing a short story most people start with a character, a setting or an idea. It doesn’t matter which comes first as long as you find which one is right for your voice. All stories have to have some kind of point to them. They need to leave you with a thought or an emotion. An editor considering your story for publication is going to be wondering, is there any reason for someone to want to read this?
  • The character must be particularly memorable for the story to work. Think yourself into the body of your character and view the world through their eyes. Be wary of being a narrator rather than one of the characters as this will lead you to tell rather than show the story. Good characterisation will leap off the page. You can bring this out in the way characters speak. You should be able to differentiate between two characters just from their dialogue. A story should normally be told from just one character’s point of view and you need to know which character. If you tell a story from two or more viewpoints you can’t suddenly switch in the middle of a paragraph. Experiment a bit to find out whether first or third person suits you best. Sometimes a story lends itself to one. If a story is not working try changing point of view to see if that works better.
  • Lots of people have similar ideas so to make your story stand out you need to grab the reader right from the beginning. Take them straight into the conflict or a moment of change in someone’s life. There’s no space for a long lead into the story and you can’t waste words on long description or facts. Towards the middle of the story you can filter in description and facts but only if they have some bearing on the story. To end the story you need a resolution or a sense of satisfaction. The reader must be left with a really strong emotion; empathy, laughter or fear, for example. Open endings can be very effective in general or literary short stories but you must show that the story was worth reading either because the character has changed or their perspective has changed. To end on a twist you have to put in little hints throughout the story to flag up that something isn’t quite as expected.
  • Do your market research while you are writing. If you want to earn a living from writing then you need to know where your work is going to suit. By reading a magazine that you would like to target you can subconsciously get to know the style and tone of the stories they publish. Look at the adverts in magazines because those will give you an idea of that magazine’s readership. Read the submission guidelines because there may be very specific rules about what kind of stories they accept.

You can read more of Rosemary’s advice for writers at suite101 or on her blog, Reading and Writing.


9 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Short Story

  1. Good post – good reminders!

    I am wondering if we have any events like the ones you attend over here in Montreal. I do not think so, but maybe I am just missing something….Either way, it’s great your taking advantage of them!

  2. Oh, Jennifer, I am sooooo tempted to google “writing events in Montreal” for you but that would just be me putting off writing for another 20 minutes.
    Have you thought about organising your own occassional events? You could use your contacts with other writers, agents, editors, publishers, and get someone in to give a talk and answer audience questions. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate at the moment so that might be something you could consider in the future if it turns out that there really is nothing going on in your area.

  3. Thanks for this timely post. I just wrapped up the second draft of my novel and am looking to take a short break to write a short story. In my short experience with the form, coming to a satisfying conclusion has been the most difficult part for me. I don’t want to be clever for the sake of being clever. I may try for emotional resonance this time around. It’s all practice, I guess.

  4. Providing a satisfying conclusion is the most difficult part for me too. Let me know how the emotional resonance works out. I think for my next short story I’m going to go for “character’s perspective has changed”. You’re right, it is all practice. Just keep writing. Even if you don’t manage to get the effect you wanted with your short story (but I hope that you do), it’s just good to be putting words onto paper and building your skill as a writer.

  5. Oh, thank you sweet Helen! You are very right, it is something for me to consider in the future! I am quite certain there are enough anglophone writers – the reason so many events by-pass MOntreal.

  6. Hi Helen, I came across your blog and have been enjoying your posts.

    Characterization is definitely important and it is so true that many people will have similar ideas but you need to make your story stand out!!

  7. Hi Laura, I’m glad you are enjoying the blog.
    I cannot tell you how many times I have had a great idea for a story and then realised that it has been done before. It was quite reassuring when Rosemary mentioned that in her talk. I’m glad I’m not the only one it happens to! I guess the important thing is to find a new perspective on that idea and to show the reader that new perspective as quickly as possible.

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