In the 1880s Brander Matthews said that short stories should be spelt with a hyphen to distinguish between two different forms, which reminds me of the picture book vs picturebook debate.
A short story is a story that is short. A short-story proper derives from the Romantic tradition and has its beginnings in myths and legends. The reader is required to put the extensional world out of mind and deal in and with a kind of underworld, a world of inexplicable strange loops, a mystical world of paradox and ambiguity, of shadows and shifting perspectives governed not by rational order but by intuition and dream logic.
MARY ROHRBERGER, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther
If a novel is a multi-roomed mansion, a short story is more like a car or Winnebago. The short story conveys us swiftly, whereas the novel is something we inhabit for days or weeks. Both forms suborn their contents to the organizing principle of theme.Peter Selgin, Brooklyn Rail
Ways of Categorising Short Stories
In 1952 Ray B. West used the words “realistic” and “symbolic” to divide short stories into two types. The problem with these labels is that the surface of some highly symbolic short stories is highly realistic.
Other scholars distinguish between “simple narrative”, “mimetic” and “lyric”, “anecdotal”, “epiphanic”, “linear”, “spatial” etc.
Whatever we call them, both types of short stories are equally legitimate. I call them ‘genre’ and ‘lyrical’ short stories. Stephen King’s short stories are genre; Katherine Mansfield’s are lyrical. In order to get the most out of a lyrical short story we need to take a long, hard look at the symbol web.
Raison d’etre of the Short Story
Short story writers question the world of appearances and in that questioning cast doubt on the immediately apparent and, at the same time, signify the timeless universals beyond the extensional world.
In the short story, questioning is embodied in technique, what is questioned is embodied in structure, and answers to the questions are inherent in total meaning.
The structure of a story creates metaphors that move to symbolic levels and embody meaning by means of analogies.
The very shortness of the short story, as well as the necessary artistic devices demanded by this shortness, force it to focus not on the whole of experience (whatever that is) in all its perceptual and conceptual categorisation, but rather on a single experience lifted out of the everyday flow of human actuality and active striving, an experience that is lifted out precisely because it is not a slice of that reality, but rather a moment in which “reality” itself is challenged.
Charles May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther
May explains that novels, in contrast, are expected to resolve their own crises. This explains why the endings of lyrical short stories tend to be a bit different from genre stories. Otherwise short stories tend to conform to universal story structure.
The short story can yield us some single bizarre occurrence of epiphany of terror whose impact would merely be blunted by lengthy realist elaboration.
Short Stories And Detail
In the short story, detail is transformed into metaphorical significance. In a novel, on the other hand, the particular can remain merely the particular. It exists to make the reader feel he/she knows the experience — to create verisimilitude.
Charles E. May, The Art of Brevity, edited by Per Winther
It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power.
— Raymond Carver, On Writing
Tips For Writing The Short Story
The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.
The types of detail found in a short story tend to be more ‘telling’ and related to ‘symbol web’ than those found in a novel.
American Short Stories
- Goodbye, My Brother by John Cheever – two brothers, one optimist, one pessimist, argue while at the family holiday home in the Massachussetts Islands.
- Reunion by John Cheever – Very sad story about a boy who suddenly understands what an asshole his father is. The classic epiphanic moment.
- The Common Day by John Cheever
- The Enormous Radio by John Cheever – a new radio broadcasts what’s happening inside nearby apartments.
- O, City Of Broken Dreams by John Cheever – a country couple relocate to New York with the empty promise of making it big with a partially completed script for a play. They are taken for mugs by a variety of characters.
- The Sutton Place Story by John Cheever – A little girl gets lost through the carelessness of her nurse who leaves the child with a friend of the family’s while she goes to church.
- Just One More Time by John Cheever – A story about privilege and how the rich rarely if ever fall to into the depths of poverty that others are born into. This is one of Cheever’s shorter short stories, and has an interesting example of sideshadowing in the final scene.
- The Swimmer by John Cheever – one of Cheever’s surrealist stories
- Christmas Is A Sad Season For The Poor by John Cheever – An elevator operator complains of how lonely he is to all the people he gives rides to.
- Clancy In The Tower Of Babel by John Cheever – An Irish immigrant to New York has an accident at his labouring job and eventually finds a job as an elevator operator at a nearby apartment block which, despite its geographic proximity, is completely foreign to Clancy, and his simple life which is in many ways humble.
- The Housebreaker of Shady Hill by John Cheever – A good example of a short story in which the protagonist has a small ‘scope of change’ (ie. doesn’t really have a true epiphany, though he may seem to.)
- The Half-Skinned Steer by Annie Proulx — a parody of the home-away-home story structure, inspired by an Icelandic folk tale.
- The Mud Below by Annie Proulx — a critique of toxic masculinity, with the setting and characters of an American rodeo circuit.
- In The Pit by Annie Proulx — a man goes to his childhood camp (I’d call it a ‘bach’) to tidy it up and put it on the market, perhaps. There’s a false accusation and though he realises his mistake, there’s no genuine epiphany regarding his own psychology.
- The Unclouded Day by Annie Proulx — another Proulx story about the conflict between real rural people and try-hard newcomers. This is a literary take on the typical story found in a Hunting and Fishing magazine, starring a trickster rural main character and a naive townie.
- On The Antler by Annie Proulx — a good case study in linking character to setting. Once the rural setting is compromised, this means the end of life as rural folk know it. But like the novel King Rat, some residents actually start to thrive once the environment changes, even if that change is generally for the worse.
- Job History by Annie Proulx — a portrait of a Trump voter, but written in the late 1990s. I’m sure Proulx saw President Trump coming a mile off.
- The Blood Bay by Annie Proulx — if “Brokeback Mountain” makes you cry, here’s one from the same author that may well make you chuckle.
- Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx – one of the few short stories to make me cry. Normally, short stories don’t give you time to feel such emotion.
- Them Old Cowboy Songs by Annie Proulx — set in the American Wild West though without the glamour.
- 55 Miles To The Gas Pump by Annie Proulx — a retelling of Bluebeard but in rural America
- The Governors of Wyoming by Annie Proulx — more like a novella, divided into parts
- A Lonely Coast by Annie Proulx – starts off in second person then switches to first. Unusual narration from this author.
- A Pair A Spurs by Annie Proulx – magical realism
- Bunchgrass End Of The World by Annie Proulx – a retelling of The Frog Prince
- People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water by Annie Proulx – an unusually heartwarming message: Extend just a little kindness and that’ll go a long way.
- The Wamsutter Wolf by Annie Proulx — Nothing to do with actual wolves — a disturbing story about domestic violence, similar to Katherine Mansfield’s “The Woman At The Store” in plot, but nothing alike in setting or tone.
- Dump Junk by Annie Proulx — Kind of like Bridges of Madison County if that were a magical realist fairy tale without the romantic plot.
- What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick by Annie Proulx — The misfortunes of an old farmer whose sons don’t want to follow him into the farming business… and no wonder.
- Man Crawling Out Of Trees by Annie Proulx — a husband and wife relocate to Wyoming but the husband likes it a lot better than the wife does. A seemingly small event ends their marriage.
- The Contest by Annie Proulx — in a small town in Wyoming, with an unrealistic number of bars for its minuscule population, the men decide to hold a beard growing contest. This is an example of Annie Proulx’s dark, dry humour.
- Fun With a Stranger by Richard Yates – a portrait of a sad, lonely old school teacher who has lost all sense of fun. Her idea of an end of year celebration is to buy the class each an eraser.
- A Glutton For Punishment by Richard Yates – A man is fired from his job and considers keeping this from his wife until he finds another one. But she knows him well, and when he gets home she is able to guess for herself.
- Court In The West Eighties — set in New York in the 1930s, point of view character is a student who observes her neighbours. Similar to Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
- Sucker — a confessional story of cruelty between an older boy and a younger boy in the same family. Compare and contrast with “The Scarlet Ibis”.
- A Country Where You Once Lived — a man returns to England where he lived for a while with his American family. He has since moved on, and now he revisits not only his erstwhile country but his erstwhile family, realising he is no longer a significant part of their lives.
- Pine — a vaguely Bluebeard-ish tale of a woman who struggles to get past the death of her husband.
- The People Across The Canyon by Margaret Millar — Who are the new people who have moved into the house across the canyon? Why is our little girl so interested in spending time with these glamorous and mysterious people?
- Louisa, Please Come Home by Shirley Jackson — a chilling tale about a young woman who just leaves home one day and disappear without a trace.
- I Am Waiting by Christopher Isherwood — set between the world wars, with perhaps some SF elements, or is this a story about mental illness?
- The Great Chain Of Being by Kim Edwards. Well-known for her later novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, Kim Edwards has also written numerous short stories, no doubt inspired by time spent living in various Asian countries. This one is a feminist tale about a woman who eventually manages to break free of the gender restrictions placed upon her in her youth.
- Cat Skin by Kelly Link is a modern story with a fairytale feel. It’s what I call batshit. If you would like to go AWOL, read this for reassurance. Or maybe you understand the story better than I do.
- A Rose For Emily by William Faulkner — A story of an aged, woman-in-the-attic recluse written in Gothic style.
- Paul’s Case by Willa Cather — a young fantasist growing up in Pittsburg does a Psycho (steals money from his job) then relocates to New York City to start a new life and completely reinvent his backstory. Doesn’t end well for him.
- Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker — a feminist New York story in a non-feminist era and grandmother of Gillian Flynn’s Cool Girl archetype.
- The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane — A midwestern snow storm throws strangers together overnight. One of them is unhinged. This story is an example of naturalism (the literary movement).
- The Damned Thing by Ambrose Bierce — the sort of work that is parodied by Welcome To Night Vale
- Old Man Minick by Edna Ferber — A widower learns how to live contentedly after his wife dies unexpectedly before he does. Set in Chicago.
- Champion by Ring Lardner — Pair with one of my favourite films, The Wrestler.
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber — the short story which led to ‘Walter Mitty’ used to describe a man who is full of big ideas, none of which come to fruition.
- I’m A Fool by Sherwood Anderson — when you big yourself up too much you end up ruining a chance at romance.
- The Leader of the People by John Steinbeck — The title doesn’t draw me in, but I loved this short story a lot.
- The Pearl by John Steinbeck has folkloric overtones, patriarchal violence and the Female Maturity Formula.
- The Killers by Ernest Hemingway — seems nothing special to me now, but remember this was groundbreaking stuff that paved the way for The Godfather and The Sopranos. Gangsters walk among us, the ordinary people.
- The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry — a rare example of a twist ending which isn’t basically saying something terrible about humankind.
- Flowering Judas by Anne Porter — This short story reminds me of “A Dill Pickle” by Katherine Mansfield. Both stories are clearly about the way in which women are socially acculturated into providing emotional labour for men, but written in a time before such language existed to described the phenomenon.
- A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’Connor — a family encounters some escaped criminals while on a road trip. Told from the grandmother’s point of view. Does not end happily.
- The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst — a confessional story of an older brother’s cruelty towards his disabled younger brother. Strong in symbolism, notably colour symbolism.
Canadian Short Stories
- Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro – Expansive as a novel, with rounded characters.
- The Runaway by Alice Munro — an excellent example of comparing a human character to an animal character in a non-supernatural way
- Silence by Alice Munro — One in a series of three interconnected short stories. This focuses on the marriage and fairly lonely old age of the main character.
- The Bear Came Over The Mountain by Alice Munro — has since been adapted for film by Sarah Polly — look for Away From Her (the film’s title).
- What Is Remembered by Alice Munro — an elderly woman looks back on a couple of days — days which furnished her fantasy life ever after.
- Queenie by Alice Munro — a short story about what is now called coercive control.
- Save The Reaper — a re-visioning of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”
- The Love Of A Good Woman — a story revolving around a crime but not a crime story. Reminiscent of Stand By Me.
- Cortes Island — a symbolic island standing in for the psychology of newly wed isolation.
- Jakarta — not actually set in Jakarta. A story of an old woman whose husband went missing, and also about the so-called ‘free love’ of the 1960s, which afforded far more freedom to men.
- Trespasses — An adolescent girl is the main character of this one. She moves to a new house with her parents, who have a violent relationship. They are followed by a woman who thinks this girl is her adopted daughter.
- Powers — A woman wrestles with her own duties of care towards others, notably her obligations towards a school friend who has been committed permanently to a psychiatric institution.
- Tricks — A young woman meets a man who she thinks she could marry, but one moment of misunderstanding changes the course of her fate forever.
(It’s been ages since I read these. I’m not sure I stand by what I wrote.)
- Madeline’s Birthday by Mavis Gallant
- Thieves and Rascals by Mavis Gallant
- A Day Like Any Other by Mavis Gallant – This story is interesting to me because of the year it was written. As a modern parent, I hear a lot about how ‘parents these days’ are overprotective of our children, interfering too much in their lives, stunting their emotional development. Yet this is a story of one such mother, and it dates from 1952.
- The Picnic by Mavis Gallant — This story is darkly comic, a ‘comedy of manners’, starring an eccentric old French aristocratic woman. The reader is afforded a close-up view into her life via an American family, the Marshalls, Major Marshall being stationed in France after the war.
- The Cost Of Living by Mavis Gallant — One character confronts another for some wrong-doing, and in one fell swoop the wrongdoer manages to sully the waters with ease, simply because she’s had so much practice.
- The Burgundy Weekend by Mavis Gallant — Lucie and Jerome Girard are due to meet an elderly woman for lunch in Burgundy.
New Zealand Short Stories
I studied Mansfield at high school in New Zealand and again at university. Then I taught these stories at high school myself. I have a decent handle on Mansfield.
- The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield — A rich girl who lives at the top of a hill spends the entire day preparing for a fancy party. But she leaves her walled garden utopia to deliver leftovers to a bereft wife at the bottom of the hill, who has lost her husband to an accident. Rich girl has an epiphany. She’s not sure what it is, and neither are we.
- Bliss by Katherine Mansfield — Bertha spends the afternoon eating mushrooms at Mt Vic with her queer bff, okay so that’s a big maybe, then is shocked to learn at a Bohemian dinner party later that night that her husband is having an affair with her own woman crush.
- At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield — The Burnell family are still living in their bungalow near the bay in Wellington, in a house which must be a little too small for all of them. Each character is aligned with another character to juxtapose and compare their various responses to very similar situations. None of the characters learns anything about themselves, but they have each developed strategies for getting on with their day-to-day lives.
- Prelude by Katherine Mansfield — The Burnell family move from central Wellington out to the nearby country. This story spans the first week in their new house, focusing on each of the different members of the household, their reactions to their new environment and their deeper longings and fears.
- The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield is the third story about the Burnell family. This focuses on the children and their interactions in the playground. They mimic the social elitism of their parents in a story about the untouchable class.
- The Voyage by Katherine Mansfield — Young Fenella takes the Picton Boat from Wellington to live with her grandparents after the death of her mother.
- The Wind Blows by Katherine Mansfield — A hormonal teenage girl endures an emotionally up-and-down day. Later, that evening, she goes down to the water with her brother, sees a ship in the distance and says goodbye to her childhood.
- The Fly by Katherine Mansfield — one of the last written before her own death, this is the tale of two old men, each dealing with his mortality in a different way.
- A Dill Pickle by Katherine Mansfield — A single woman meets up with her old boyfriend in a London cafe. She hasn’t seen him in quite some time. Privileged white boy is doing very well for himself. She considers starting something up with him again, but the conversation reveals he’s still a total arse and privilege has only made him worse. So she walks out of the cafe, doomed to be forever alone. He gets over her quickly, which is the exact reason she can’t stand him.
- New Dresses by Katherine Mansfield — is considered an early version of the Burnell family who we see later in the Prelude trilogy. Some have said this story feels contrived. I take a close look at why that might be.
- The Escape by Katherine Mansfield — a married man and woman take a cart to the train station. They occupy completely different emotional spaces. By the end of the story the husband has learned to disassociate fully from his wife by delving into his fantasy world.
- Her First Ball by Katherine Mansfield — Would you have reacted as Leila did?
- The Tiredness of Rosabel by Katherine Mansfield — Mansfield’s earliest widely published story, about a young woman who works in a hat shop in London. These days she wouldn’t afford her own room — she’d do as I did in London, and be sleeping in a room with three other people!
- Pictures — The story of an old theatre woman, Ada Moss, about to be thrown out of her apartment in London.
- Poison — A besotted young man has a partial epiphany; his lover isn’t as perfect as he had imagined.
- Taking The Veil — An 18-year-old woman engaged to be married to her childhood sweetheart takes a stroll, ends up at the church and all the while contemplates what her life would be like if she were to become a nun instead of getting married.
- Feuille d’Album — In high society, a young man appears to have no personality. This sets the young ladies talking. One of them makes up a story about him, turning him into a comical figure.
- Psychology — What do you do when you’re a young unmarried woman, horny and there’s no reliable birth control to speak of? Plus, you don’t want to ruin your reputation. In “Psychology” Mansfield paints a portrait of a woman who has found one way of dealing with all that.
- How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped — Playing into benevolent stereotypes of Maori at the turn of the 20th century, this is the story of a preschool white girl who gets taken out for the day by Maori women.
- See Saw — The story structure itself functions like a see-saw, in which two young children and two elderly people enjoy a nice day in a park.
- Carnation — Set entirely in a classroom on a stifling hot day, a teenage girl is bored by her French teacher, so stares out the window. She has a vaguely sexual experience which bleeds into another erotic moment when another student gives her a flower.
- Something Childish But Very Natural — A young man and woman fall in love on a train. They go on this mythic journey through the limerant stages of first love together. Mansfield writes this magnificently — she even seems to morph the landscape, playing with scale.
- An Affair Of The Heart by Frank Sargeson is about love, and how it can transcend age. I find it creepy.
- King Bait by Keri Hulme is a magical realist tale in the tall story tradition, set on the West Coast of New Zealand. It’s about the deadly sin of greed.
British Short Stories
- Tobermory by Saki — a humorous story about a talking cat and a gossip network.
- The She-Wolf — a trickster story in which a man and a woman play a trick on a man who insists he knows magic and is able to transmogrify.
- The Lumber Room — it’s about the gay experience. I’m convinced now. This makes “The Lumber Room” one of Saki’s deeper works.
- Diary of an Interesting Year — A comically dark apocalyptic tale, which skewers the idea that we can prepare for such things.
- Up At A Villa — Two pairs of teenagers gate crash a fancy villa in France, where they have been staying at cheaper digs and then run out of money. They get an unwelcome glimpse into their own futures and are quite cruel about it.
- In-flight Entertainment — A climate change story, eerily familiar to anyone who’s had a conversation with a climate crisis denier.
- The Three Strangers by Thomas Hardy — a trickster tale with a rainy, pastoral, English setting. Read on April Fool’s Eve.
- Rain by Somerset Maugham — a fish-out-of-water story, in which characters wholly unsuited to their environment become marooned somewhere due to external circumstances.
- The Happy Hypocrite by Max Beerbohm — a misogynistic tale, so try to read it as a fairy tale, not as feminism. Which it isn’t.
- The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe — the first procedural detective story. That part of it is very boring to read, imo. The ending is bizarre. But as a historical document, interesting.
- Man-sized in Marble by Edith Nesbit — You may know her better because of her stories for children, but Nesbit also wrote horror.
- The Tiger’s Bride by Angela Carter — for genuinely feminist revisionings of fairytales, see The Bloody Chamber collection, written in the 1970s. This is from that.
- In The Company Of Wolves by Angela Carter — arguably the best feminist revisioning of Little Red Riding Hood
- Peter and the Wolf by Angela Carter — a great example of mise en abyme in storytelling
- Lizzie’s Tiger by Angela Carter — a fictional re-visioning of Lizzie Borden’s early childhood.
- The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter — a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood
- The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter — a retelling of Bluebeard, in which the young bride is rescued not by her brothers but by her mother.
Irish Short Stories
- Beer Trip To Llandudno — a group of men from Merseyside go for a daytrip to North Wales. On this mythic journey they realise they are edging closer to death.
- Who’s-Dead McCarthy — a darkly humorous character sketch of a man who is fascinated by death. This describes us all?
- Ernestine and Kit — I loved this story about two middle-aged women who drive around Ireland with ill-intent.
Latin American Short Stories
A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is another story about cruelty, and the archetypal example of magical realism.
Australian Short Stories
- Blackberries by Thomas Kenneally — a middle-aged man falls for a student of his. A contemporary take on a Lolita that never plays out.
- Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan — the creepiest horror story Australia has produced.
- A View of Mount Warning by Robert Drewe — another story of a middle-aged man who falls for a younger woman — unfortunately the wife of his best friend.
- The Lap Pool by Robert Drewe — a man has become caught doing fraudulent things with money. Now he is alone and destitute on his run-down farm.
- The Three Types of Short Story from Comma Press
- Evolution of the Three Types from Comma Press
- Writing Exercise: The Epical Story from Comma Press
- Writing Exercise: The Lyrical Story from Comma Press
- Short Story Endings from The Writing Show
- Short Story Beginnings from The Writing Show
It’s surprisingly difficult to find much information on the topic of short story structure, partly because literary scholars haven’t touched it. Anything you find will probably be brief and written by short story practitioners themselves.
Exceptions include the following:
- T. O. Beachcroft (1968)
- Ian Reid (1977), in the Critical Idiom series.
- Todorov (1977) in Poetique de la Prose
- Valerie Shaw (1983) The Short Story: A Critical Introduction (1983)
- Clare Hanson (1985) Short stories and Short Fictions 1880-1980
But a number of those commentators restrict themselves to the folktale, which has little in common with contemporary short fiction.
The rules seem to be these: ifyou have written a successful novel, everyone invites you to write short stories. If you have written some good short stories, everyone wants you to write a novel. But nobody wants anything until you have already proved yourself by being published somewhere else.James Michener