The Short Story

Hello everyone! I haven’t been around much recently. I could blame all the projects I’m involved with or I could blame lethargy and apathy. Or it might be a different reason altogether because I’m an unreliable narrator. I’ll leave you to decide which is the truth!

Whatever the reason for my absence, I thought it was high time I wrote another post. I finished teaching a course on the short story just before Easter; I’ve started another one this term, and the other day someone asked me what a short story is, so I decided I’d put a few ideas down here.

(image courtesy of

So what is a short story? Here are some quotes which help define the form:

    • ‘Something glimpsed from the corner of the eye in passing.‘ V. S. Pritchett
    • ‘Art of the glimpse.’ William Trevor
    • ‘You take a point in time and develop it from there: no room for development backwards.‘ Frank O’Connor
    • ‘As in film, you must be conscious in a story of dead air. Twenty mediocre pages won’t hurt a novel, but such slackness would kill a story.‘ Thomas McGuane
    • ‘A short story is a love affair; a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.’ Lorrie Moore

    My favourite is another one from William Trevor: ‘A short story is bony and cannot wander.’

Stories can be very short from a few words, to 300/500 words, to 2 or 3,000, or maybe 5,000 words. But however long or short, they must convey a strong sense of narrative. Narrative is an essential element of the human psyche. We crave stories, and if we haven’t got them, we make them up.

But they are more than the stories that we tell about our horrible journey home in the rush hour, or a small child’s story … and then … and then … and then … They have the time sequence a plot needs. But E. M. Forster describes the essential difference between story and plot as causality:

Story: the king died and then the queen died.

Plot: the king died and then the queen died because of grief.

That’s an interesting point because plot stems from character – why do characters react in the way they do to events? Character A might react one way, while character B reacts differently because of their personality, experiences and emotions. It’s the cause and effect which is so important.

A short story – however short – also has to be whole in itself. There should be a sense of completeness to it. In a short story both the character and the reader go on a journey. A journey which begins in such a compelling way, neither can resist. As Hemingway said: ‘A story is like a chess game – the opening dictates whether you will win or lose.’ The story also needs a core conflict at its heart with jeopardy confronting the character, and it should be emotionally and psychologically satisfying at the end, even if it is open-ended.

A good short story takes you on an interesting ride; an outstanding story takes you on the ride of your life.



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  1. Joanne Phillips says:

    This is great, Lindsay – I’d love to learn more about short story writing. Have you ever thought of developing your short story course to teach online? I’d sign up 🙂 x

  2. Polly says:

    Always useful to have a few quotes to hand when describing story…these may come in handy later this year 😉

  3. Lindsay says:

    That’s a good idea, Jo. Haven’t planned to turn it into an online course, but ‘never say never’!

  4. Lindsay says:

    What were you thinking of, Polly? Something to do with flash fiction?!

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