The Craft of Writing ‘Great’ Short Fiction

Don’t be fooled – writing great short fiction is no easy feat. Although, this form of writing is relatively brief compared with the novel, writers of short fiction have a difficult task; we have a very brief window of opportunity to hook readers and hold their attention. Our prospective audience might only give us a paragraph or two in which to convince them to read on. Consequently, when tackling shorter forms of creative writing, we need to ensure that every word helps push the story towards its climax, while also contributing to the overall aesthetics of the piece.

Given these constraints, how do we go about crafting a great piece of short fiction? I certainly don’t have all the answers. On the contrary, I learn more about writing almost every day. Never-the-less, in this article I’ll endeavour to offer some insights concerning the mechanics intrinsic to great short fiction, while also providing a few tips as to how it might be crafted. On that note, it seems appropriate to discuss some key attributes of great short stories. Let’s explore them:

Quality Writing: Detailed craftsmanship produces quality writing that resonates with readers on both an emotional and intellectual level. In order to achieve this resonance, it pays to consider the following steps: firstly, concentrate on getting your ideas down and writing from the heart; secondly, put your story aside and give it time to cool; thirdly, revise your work and edit with your head – in other words, be merciless towards your creative darlings in order to let them truly shine. This approach will allow you to tap into ideas that can rock a reader’s soul, while remaining cognisant of the need to manipulate language in a way that achieves concise expression and aesthetic balance.

There’s an enormous range of great stories out there that exhibit quality writing. Such pieces – whether they’re to be found in the classic, modern, or contemporary era – have a lot to offer readers and writers. In this sense, in order to hone the craft of quality writing, we need to regularly read it. Observing the techniques, cadence, voice and style of other writers not only helps us develop a deeper understanding of the craft, but also influences our own approach to writing. As Stephen King says, ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’

To my mind, you can’t go past Ernest Hemingway when searching for examples of quality writing. Take a look at Hills Like White Elephants for a taste of his unsurpassed ability to deploy third person objective point of view in a way that prompts readers to search ‘between the lines’ for meaning. Another gorgeous piece by the same author is Cat in the Rain, a deceptively simple narrative that encapsulates Hemingway’s ability to ‘show’ his characters’ true colours through action, sparse description and revelatory dialogue.

As Hemingway demonstrates, great stories are crafted when each word purposefully contributes to the composite work.

An Identifiable Theme: Great stories usually have a theme (or themes) with which readers can connect. Theme can be a slippery concept to define, so let’s start with clarifying what it’s not. Theme is not what happens in a story (which would be its plot), or the subject of a story (which would be its topic). Rather, it’s the angle a writer chooses to cast on a topic, or – to put it another way – the exploration of a topic within a certain discourse, or set of values. Think of it this way: the topic of a story may be war, while its theme might be the futile wastage associated with war.

A narrative’s theme is usually conveyed in subtle ways – through action, dialogue, symbolism, literary allusions, a narrator’s perceptions, as well as character transformation. Resonant themes – those that echo throughout a piece – develop as the narrative unfolds, prompting us to ask questions about the issues broached. Significantly, because we bring our own experiences and expectations to every text, the interpretation of theme will differ between readers. The important thing to remember is that themes seem to work best when they are allowed to drift to the surface of a story. To get an idea of how accomplished writers achieve this effect, take a look at William Carlos Williams’ story The Use of Force, which questions the ethics behind decisions designed to dominate the less powerful and/or fortunate in society, even if such decisions are driven by a desire to help them. By the end of this piece, readers are left with plenty to think about, including the extent to which individuals have the right to exercise free-will in the face of social conventions and pressures. Another story that delivers thought-provoking themes is The Fly by Katherine Mansfield. Featuring the suffering and ultimate demise of a fly as the focal point of tension, this story presents a social criticism on the destructive and often cruel nature of war. Importantly, the author doesn’t ‘tell’ readers about theme; instead, she creates an allegory that encourages them to form their own conclusions about meaning.

Ultimately, it is only through practise (and reading the work of others) that we learn to craft story themes in a way that complements our individual writing styles.

Relatable Characters: Another essential component of a great short story is the creation of characters that readers can relate to on some level. Memorable stories contain characters that intrigue readers and compel them to make an emotional investment in the narrative’s outcome.  If readers don’t care about what happens to a character, then chances are they’re not going to pursue the story. Fascinating characters that hold our attention need not be infallible. Indeed, it’s often the case that relatable characters are well-rounded, possessing strengths and weaknesses that remind us of what it means to be human. As crime-writer David Corbett explains, ‘When people appear wounded or in need or our help, we are instantly drawn to them – it’s a basic human reflex…the fact of the matter is that injury to another person instantly triggers a strong response.’

An example of an unguarded and truly captivating character can be found in the short story Pin by Robert McCammon. It would be a significant challenge for story lovers to read this narrative without caring about what happens to its anti-hero. Heart-breakingly vulnerable due to his psychological instability, McCammon’s character seems to trek steadily towards self-destruction, without so much as physically leaving the room in which the author has placed him. The ability to simultaneously generate such a high level of tension and reader empathy is surely an enviable skill.

Highly effective characterisation can also be found in in Langston Hugh’s story Thank You M’am. In this piece, the two central characters are so completely different as to seem larger than life; this contrast is not only dramatic, but also serves to shed light upon each character’s true nature. It’s worth noting that in Thank You M’am, the author places little emphasis on the physical features of his characters, except to say that the woman is ‘large’ and the boy has ‘a dirty face’; instead, the way the characters act, move around and speak helps to ‘show’ who they are. It follows that we can craft truly memorable characters by focussing less on how they appear, and more on how they behave.

Sustained Conflict: Great short stories are fuelled by conflict that is sustained until a point of climax. When I speak of conflict, I’m not referring to an obligatory bar fight or explosive car crash; I mean that compelling stories often depict characters who must strive to fulfil their goals, overcome adversity, or both. Let your characters want something and you’ll create conflict; put obstacles in their way as they strive to achieve their desires and readers will long to know how they fare.

Conflict within a narrative may be clear and overt, commanding reader attention from the out-set, as occurs in Ray Bradbury’s Kaleidoscope, which opens with a description of a rocket being ‘torn open…’; or it may be more subtle, as demonstrated within Doris Lessing’s sublime narrative, Through the Tunnel, in which she has her character constantly push physical and psychological boundaries. Either way, plausible and compelling conflict is not only the engine room of narrative, driving plot and characterisation forward, but it’s also essential for sustaining reader interest. As the author James Frye says, ‘The greatest rules of dramatic writing are conflict, conflict and conflict.’

No doubt there are other notable qualities to be found in entertaining and engaging stories, but if you can nail the fundamental attributes outlined above, then you’ll be well on your way to crafting great short fiction.

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Eileen Herbert-Goodall

About Eileen Herbert-Goodall

Eileen Herbert-Goodall holds a Doctorate of Creative Arts, which she earned at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), Queensland, Australia. She teaches high school students through the university's Creative Writing Excellence Program. Along with a colleague, she also runs the Field of Words writing and editing website. She has had many pieces of non-fiction and short fiction published, and is presently working on a collection of short stories.