Short stories have always been among the world’s favorite literature. From classic works to modern tales, from comedies to tragedies, from long short stories to flash fiction, and everything in between, short stories never cease to rouse emotions and provoke questions. Though short stories greatly vary, what they have in common are the five basic elements of a short story. Knowing these elements helps enrich your reading experience and strengthens your analysis.
One of the elements of a short story is the setting. This generally refers to the time and place in which the story happens. The number of settings featured in a short story varies. Whereas some may feature only one place in a single point in time, others may feature more and may even shift between places and time periods. Note, though, that the concept of setting extends beyond the place and time. Setting may also refer to the circumstances that exist in the place and in that particular point in time. More than serving as the backdrop, the setting can be an influential element as it can affect what happens in the story. For example, the hostile weather in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” affects the life of the character just as strongly as the neighborhood impacts the character’s views in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case.”
Character can be defined as an individual who takes part in the action. This individual can be human, such as in the case of Emily Grierson in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”; or animal, such as the elephant in George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant”; or even supernatural, such as the mermaid in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” Central characters often face a certain problem, undergo a journey, or simply become transformed by the events that take place. What makes them important is that readers usually relate to or identify with them. When reading short stories, it is useful to observe what the characters think or do and how they eventually change over time.
Another element is known as the conflict, which is basically the struggle between opposing forces. The conflict is often related to the character in that the character is usually involved in a struggle. Therefore, the conflict can influence the character’s actions. For instance, a character may take action in order to resolve an existing conflict. Conflict can be categorized as either internal or external. Internal conflict happens when the struggle exists within the character, such as when the character has conflicting emotions or desires. For instance, Louise Mallard in Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” is torn between the grief of losing her husband and the joy of freedom as a widowed woman. By contrast, an external conflict takes place between the character and another individual (such as person, animal, thing, or nature). The struggle between detective C. Auguste Dupin and Minister D in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” is an example of an external conflict, since each must outwit the other.
The plot, as one of the elements of a short story, refers to the series of events and actions that move the conflict along. The plot is basically composed of five phases. The Exposition is the first phase which serves as an introduction to other element such as the characters, setting, or conflict. Sometimes, the conflict is presented just after the first phase. The Rising Action refers to the phase wherein the events begin to pick up. In this phase, the characters may address minor conflicts with the goal of resolving the main conflict. The Climax is the high point of the story and often features actions or events that will determine the fate of the characters or the resolution of the conflict. For instance, the protagonist may face mortal danger at this point or make an irreversible decision. The fourth phase is the Falling Action, which involves the events that lead towards the resolution of the conflict. The results of the actions taken in the previous phase are presented in this stage. Finally, the Resolution is the last part. In this phase, the conflict may be fully resolved and what happens to the characters may be show. Sometimes, the resolution may also offer an ending that’s open to interpretation or hints at the future.
The theme is the main idea that the story conveys. In other words, the theme is the message the story wishes to reveal to the reader. A theme can come in different forms, but oftentimes it is a comment about human nature or society or a moral lesson. It is important to note that the theme is different from the topic. For instance, a short story’s topic may be about love, but love is not necessarily the theme. Simply put, a theme is a statement about the topic. For example, the topic of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” is love, but the theme is this statement about how love is expressed through selfless devotion. As literature continues to evolve, writers also come up with new ways of using these elements to produce new works. But as these elements are basic components of short stories, being familiar with them can benefit both reading for work and reading for leisure.