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Writers like Anton Chekhov, O. Henry, Alice Munro, and Tobias Wolff are all big names in the short story genre. How do these writers craft such remarkable stories? They are the true masters at combining the five elements of a short story: plot, character, setting, conflict, and theme.
These five elements make short stories the best starting point for novice writers. They’re short and fairly simple, so the writer gets a chance to focus on the plot, character, and theme. Short stories also offer writers the opportunity to see their writing flourish as a piece of fiction— a great confidence boost!
If you wish to write stories that are worthy of publishing, you must understand the characteristics of a short story. To help you get there, let’s take a careful look at these five short story elements.
How do the five elements of a short story work? How can you naturally inculcate them in your stories, and how can you tie them up to create one coherent whole?
Here are the five key elements of a short story:
Let’s take a closer look at these elements and figure out how you should use them in a short story.
A simple way to define plot is to call it a sequence of events in your narrative. It is a cause-and-effect chain of events that has a beginning point, a climax, and a resolution.
Writers use the plot to map out their story before beginning with their writing process. For fiction writing, this serves as a creative outline. So, an understanding of the plot is crucial to make your story impactful and craft a compelling narrative.
The sequence of events in a plot is tied to the central conflict in a story. The plot develops as the protagonist struggles with their given problem, finds a solution, and eventually accepts the results.
1. Exposition: An introduction of characters, setting, and the conflict, providing all the necessary background information.
2. Opening incident: The incident that leads the main character to conflict and begins the plot.
3. Rising action: The conflict develops and takes on newer, more complicated incidents, leading to the climax.
4. Climax: The conflict reaches a peak, which then leads to a change in the course of events, giving the reader a new understanding of the story either through an event or an insight.
5. Falling action: The conflict gets resolved and the action slows down.
6. Resolution: The conflict ends, leaving the reader fulfilled.
Often, plots in short stories are simple but end up delivering great suspense, followed by a grand moment of revelation. For this reason alone, plot was once considered the most important of all the five elements of a short story.
Modern short stories are often focused on the nuances of character and setting, so plot becomes secondary. However, plot is the spine of any given narrative, so it still features first in our study of the short story elements!
Your prime goal as a writer of short stories is to blow your readers’ minds — wrench their guts — with the least words possible. An ideal short story is between 5,000–10,000 words in length. You must keep it short and creatively blunt.
Every paragraph, every sentence, and every word should lead the reader closer to the climax. Cut anything that doesn’t serve this purpose. Short stories give you a very small space to work with, so brevity becomes important.
Some techniques to add more kick to your story are creating suspense, foreshadowing, flashback, and a short story staple, the surprise ending.
Your characters are the people, animals, or other figures who appear in your stories. They perform actions and say dialogue to move the story along. Without characters, a story can’t exist.
Depending on how you see it, a character can be classified as either round or flat, dynamic or static, a protagonist or an antagonist. For a short story, well-rounded and dynamic characters will be your strength.
The easiest way to write interesting characters is to make sure that they have a flaw. Always keep in mind that in any story, perfect characters fall flat.
Be careful that you don’t put too much emphasis on character traits and backstory. Unlike novels, characters in a short story are only glimpsed at, rather than seen in the round.
You may say that characteristics of a short story are abbreviated versions of the same in novels. So, short stories will feature only two or three major characters, while novels can boast a dozen!
Short stories can be great character studies, but a good rule of thumb is to focus on dialogue and action.
Make the interaction between the characters dynamic. This includes what they do and say to each other, how they affect and influence each other, and how the effects of their actions keep the story going toward the climax and the subsequent resolution.
Ever felt transported to another world while reading a short story? That’s the work of a writer who can imagine and write a whole other world into being.
This element of a short story is crucial in making it real to the reader. The setting establishes a time, place, and environment in which the characters and events of the story are based.
1. Time: A story is usually set in a time period. This includes the historical time of the story, its specific time frame, and even the time of the day when the events take place.
2. Place: Place is the geographical landscape, real or imaginary, where a particular story unfolds.
3. Environment: The environment of a story can include anything from weather conditions to the social, cultural, and political backdrop to a given story.
For example, Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Necklace takes place during the 19th century in the city of Paris and has the environmental backdrop of class difference in French society.
Like the main conflict of class difference in The Necklace, all other characteristics of a short story derive from its setting. When well-designed, this can also help set up the dominant emotional tone. Of course, it takes a significant amount of research to deliver a setting both beautifully and believably.
Conflict is closely linked to the theme of a narrative, as it motivates the characters and affects the plot. It usually surfaces when the protagonist (main character) faces an obstacle or hardship. Conflict forms “the heartbeat of a story”, so your story needs to have a defining conflict to impact the reader’s mind.
There are two main types of conflict: internal conflict and external conflict.
1. Internal conflict is a person’s struggle with themselves. It takes place inside the psyche of a character, such as Hamlet’s conflicted state of mind about how to take revenge for his father’s murder.
2. External conflict takes place between different people or groups of people. It is possible to further divide this type of conflict based on who or what the protagonist(s) are struggling against. For example, the conflict in A Game of Thrones is between kingdoms, but also between people and the supernatural elements of the fantasy world.
Regardless of the types of conflict you choose, making it believable will hold the reader’s attention. Various literary devices like mystery, causality, empathy, surprise, insight, universality, or simply high stakes for the character, all add a different dimension of conflict to the plot. Conflict drives your story and makes it interesting.
A theme is what children would call the moral of the story. It can be the subject of the story, or an idea that runs through it, or simply the message that is conveyed from the writer to the reader through the short story. The writer can use all the other characteristics of a short story to best articulate their theme into words.
A well-told story, the kind which gets published or made into a film, explains itself. For example, while reading O. Henry’s short story The Gift of the Magi, you can easily understand that the story is about the value of love and sacrifice. In this way, theme is implied rather than stated explicitly, and it is up to the writer’s skill to best convey it through their writing.
For a short story, it is usually best to decide on a single, resonant theme and then build around it. This helps maintain brevity in your story and helps you grasp the reader’s attention.
Now that you know the five elements of a short story, you can go ahead and write your own. We expect to find your manuscript on a story editor’s desk very soon!
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