I like short stories. I like being able to read an entire plot arc in 15-20 minutes, to be able to pick up a story and read the whole thing at the doctor’s office or while waiting in the car while someone runs an errand.

It’s probably a good thing that I like short stories so much since I’ve been reading quite a few of them in my picture book submissions. Because word counts tend to be similar between a short story and a picture book manuscript, I can see how the two could be confused. In fact I talked about this recently in my Short Story MS vs Picture Book MS: There is a difference post. I’m not going to recap that discussion here. What I thought I would do instead is discuss some of the things that make a good short story.

Good short stories have:

  • A complete story arc.
    Yes, that’s right. A good short story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. If it doesn’t the tale is probably an anecdote or even just a scene from something longer.
  • Compelling characters.
    Just because you have fewer words doesn’t mean your characters get to be types. If your character is an uninteresting stereotype, then I’m not any more inclined to read his/her 5 page story than I was to read his/her 500 page novel.
  • Focused.
    Since you are working in a smaller (word) space, a short story has to be more tightly focused than a novel. There often can’t be any subplots, and there tend to be fewer supporting characters. Take as an example the difference between Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” and Ender’s Game. The short story does not mention Ender’s siblings and the politics of Earth. It also starts earlier and ends earlier in the novel’s plot line.
  • Judicious use of summary.
    You can get away with more summary in a short story, but you still can’t use it much. After all, scenes are so much more interesting to read.
© Copyright 2006-2011 Madeline Smoot. All rights reserved.
May be excerpted and duplicated for educational purposes.
%d bloggers like this: