Humans were made to tell stories. We have been telling each other stories since the beginning of time. From biblical stories to folklore, myths, novels, even poems, and now short stories—human history has been closely tied with stories. Being able to define what a short story is and what the elements of a short story are, is not enough to understand this form of literature. Immerse yourself in these examples of short stories, that will hopefully inspire you to read more or write your own short stories.
What is a short story?
A short story is a work of fiction with a fully developed narrative that is typically short enough to finish in one sitting. Short stories may be extremely short, as in the case of hint fiction and flash fiction, or quite long, while others may experiment with form. Regardless of its length or form, a short story focuses on singular incidents or a few episodes that explore a particular theme. What more explicitly defines short stories are their elements. What are these elements? These are plot, conflict, character, setting, and theme.
Aside from the events that take place and the characters introduced in the narrative, short stories are known for their use of images or of literary devices. Great short story writers employ literary devices to explore a pattern or motif in their narrative. While a beginning, middle, and end are important in any short story, what it reveals about the topic or theme is more compelling for most readers.
Examples of Short Stories
Short stories come in different shapes and sizes. Some short stories may span from 10,000 words, while others may be as short as a single page. In fact, the shortest short story—more specifically, hint fiction—is only six words and is attributed to Ernest Hemingway:
For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.
How do people know that a piece of narrative is a short story? That’s simple—no matter how long or short they are, they always contain the elements of a short story.
Another example of a short story is a paragraph-long story by Etgar Keret. This short story, like Hemingway’s six-word story, portrays a beginning and a conflict that led to the scenario described. It also implies an ending to the current scenario that the reader understands despite its open-ended nature.
"Suddenly, A Knock on the Door"
By Etgar Keret, Guernica, 2012
I try to explain to the bearded man that if he puts his pistol away it will only work in his favor, in our favor. It’s hard to think up a story with the barrel of a loaded pistol pointed at your head. But the guy insists. “In this country,” he explains, “if you want something, you have to use force.” He just got here from Sweden, and in Sweden it’s completely different. Over there, if you want something, you ask politely, and most of the time you get it. But not in the stifling, sultry Middle East. All it takes is a single week around here to figure out how things work—or rather, how things don’t work. The Palestinians asked for a state, nicely. Did they get one? The hell they did. So they switched to blowing up kids on buses, and people started listening.
When writing a work of fiction, or any type of literature for that matter, comes with a great degree of freedom. You can write about anything. However, you cannot write however you want because there are rules that even these seemingly simple short stories follow.
For a short story to be considered a short story, it must always contain a conflict. You may opt to omit characters, as the six-word story did, but not conflict because this is what drives the story’s plot. Indeed, you can manipulate the elements, in order for your short story to be successful, you need to consider how the elements work together. Observe how the examples of short stories mentioned so far have unity and fluidity.
Literature is not fun if all the writers follow the rules. Some of the most remarkable written works are those that push the definition of their respective literary genres. Take, for example, Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” This piece of personal narrative blurs the lines that separate a short story from a poem. Some argue that Kincaid wrote a poem, while others insist that it is flash fiction. “Girl” embraces techniques used in poetry but contains the major elements of a short story. Why don’t you decide for yourself?
By Jamaica Kincaid, The New Yorker, 1976
Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry; don’t walk bare-head in the hot sun; cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil; soak your little cloths right after you take them off; when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum in it, because that way it won’t hold up well after a wash; soak salt fish overnight before you cook it; is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?; always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions; don’t eat fruits on the street—flies will follow you; but I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school; this is how to sew on a button; this is how to make a buttonhole for the button you have just sewed on; this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; this is how you iron your father’s khaki pants so that they don’t have a crease; this is how you grow okra—far from the house, because okra tree harbors red ants; when you are growing dasheen, make sure it gets plenty of water or else it makes your throat itch when you are eating it; this is how you sweep a corner; this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don’t squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know; don’t pick people’s flowers—you might catch something; don’t throw stones at blackbirds, because it might not be a blackbird at all; this is how to make a bread pudding; this is how to make doukona; this is how to make pepper pot; this is how to make a good medicine for a cold; this is how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child; this is how to catch a fish; this is how to throw back a fish you don’t like, and that way something bad won’t fall on you; this is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up; this is how to spit up in the air if you feel like it, and this is how to move quick so that it doesn’t fall on you; this is how to make ends meet; always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?
It had been a month since my bear of a big brother Frank came home after his last tour of duty. I always enjoyed it when he came home. Since he did not have a girlfriend and never had to worry about sharing money even if he was an adult, he always treated me to our favorite ice cream place whenever he was home. He still lived with us. He had one wing of the house, I had the other, and Dad had the middle one. Dad didn’t quite believe in us having to move out upon reaching 18 or 21, whatever the legal age was, as he always said. He always reminded us that he had worked hard his whole life to build a home large enough for his two children to live in even if we both had gotten married and have our own families.
Anyway, I hadn’t had the time to ask Frank out to the ice cream place because I had just started fourth grade and had been enjoying the company of my new biking friends. So whenever I got home, he would always look at me and with a knowing grin, ask me if I wanted ice cream or play video games. Up until this point I had always said no because I had been practicing to jump my brand new navy blue mountain bike with my new buddies. He won this time but I asked if we could have some fried chicken and burgers first and just have ice cream as dessert. An amused but baffled look came on his face and asked if Dad had been forgetting to give me money. I told him no, but that I had been having a hard time saving for that cool blue helmet just ten bucks away from my hands.
Whenever I bugged him about how his last tour went, he would always tell me that I was too young to understand but he would tell me anyway. I questioned him why he thought I was too young to understand war when I lorded over the competition on Call of Duty. In fact, I made the Nazis eat my dust. He answered that it was okay, that it was smooth. He added that despite the continuous rain of bombs miles away from their camp, neither he nor his team had had to use their M-16s because they hadn’t had to fight any enemies up close. While they hadn’t had to fire at the enemy, it was only the memory of the sound of mortars, bombs, grenades, gunfire that still gave him nightmares.
He said he felt really delighted about being home the two of us, and that he would just make up for the lost time. It was good to hear Frank talk about how a soldier friend of his had been helping him during those nights when he could not sleep well because of the bomb sounds. I asked him if he could call his buddy up to join us and maybe we could play when we got home, but he said his buddy wasn’t a game nerd and only visited at night, through the backdoor of his wing of the house. I badly wanted to thank his buddy for visiting Frank. I also wanted to show him my new bike tricks, in case he was a bike fan. The afternoons in the ice cream place became more frequent, like three or four times a week, and it went on for more than a month. And I had been getting the feeling that my bike buddies had become familiar with my absence. I wanted to join them again but who could blame me? My brother was a soldier and he was a real soldier with real war stories to tell. This Friday afternoon, Frank was particularly happy, telling me that he had been sleeping well lately and that he and his buddy would have a few drinks in his wing tonight to celebrate his victory over those bad dreams. I told him I was happy for both of them and that if only I had been old enough to drink, I would join them, but Frank calmly replied that it was only soldiers, not bikers.
Later that night, I easily got bored with Call of Duty and killing Nazis and became sleepy. I figured it may have been because of the four ice cream mugs and six chicken wings I had which Frank poked fun at. Before I headed to my wing, I decided to peep on Frank and his buddy. I hoped they were quite drunk already so they would not notice me. It may have slipped their mind that there was still a window half-closed and as I headed towards it, it was clear from their voices that they were both drunk. Their laughter alternated and I discovered that Alan, funnily enough, was the name of his friend. As careful as a cat preparing to pounce on a mouse, I peered into the half-closed window and into Frank’s large room. I wanted to see if I could still talk to Alan before he went home. I saw that there was nobody in the room but Frank, staring at the mirror holding a beer mug half-filled. He whispered, talked, laughed and whimpered to himself in two very different voices, his eyes droopy yet clear. My mind went black and blank and I sped away.
Here is another example of a short story that uses a unique way to tell a story. The story resembles a documentary with interviews, and relies on dialogue from characters other than the main protagonist, to keep readers interested in the narrative.
"Every Slice Is A Different Role"
He’s about to rest after making pizza when suddenly, his phone rings.
"He’s always busy, you’ll never see him resting even when it is already midnight," cried grandma Roda. You can see how tired he is with his eyes but he still manages to put on a happy face in front of everyone. No one can ever comprehend how he manages to get all his work done and still have the time to play with the children.
47-year-old Edward Maldovis, owner of Cremaloba pizza parlor, wakes up at four in the morning every day to start baking bread and pizza. He makes delicious bread and cupcakes which only cost 15 cents. After baking bread, he starts making his famous hotdog pizza which is sold for 20 cents each slice and is only exclusive for the students of a public school in front of his pizza parlor. The story behind this hotdog pizza is heartwarming.
He bakes this hotdog pizza to aid in solving malnourishment in the public school across his pizza parlor. Most of these children live in remote places, on hills across the rice field.
It is nine in the morning and the bell rings. Soon after, the students start to fill the pizza parlor. Edward turns the television on and switches the channel to some cartoons.
"I have been homeless myself and was only lucky enough to be adopted by a rich Chinese businessman. I know how hard it is to be deprived," said Edward while distributing his famous hotdog pizza.
He is greatly admired by everyone around him.
James Lennett, a 21-year-old college student said "I came to uncle Ed asking for help in finding a job when I had to stop because I could no longer afford the cost of transportation from my house to my school. He said he is about to open a diner and asked me to find three more workers."
"I originally planned to build just a small stall to aid the teachers and the city council in solving malnourishment but a boy came to me asking for possible job recruitments and I thought, why not make a pizza parlor and help these out-of-school youths earn to support their education," Edward said.
It is 12 noon and his workers start to come. 17-year-old Eula Canes, 18-year-old Denmark Canes, and 21-year-old James Lennett all came from school.
It is time for Edward to rest when suddenly, his phone rings.
He has been requested by a nun to go to the airport, a two-hour drive away from his store in order to fetch a priest at three in the afternoon.
"I still serve to the convent and to the church. When my father died and our house got ruined by the hurricane, I lost the will to live. I attempted to commit suicide but I was saved by the words of a nun," Edward said.
He has been serving as a personal driver and assistant to the nuns for the past 17 years. He donates his earnings from Cremaloba to the church and to charity events of the congregation.
He seems tired but happy while driving the car. He rolls the car windows down and breathes the fresh air of the province. "I am never leaving this place," he says.
The priest arrives and goes straight to give uncle Ed a hug. "Ed, I am always delighted to see you," said Father Bryan.
After accompanying the priest to the church, his phone rings again.
"We ran out of tomato sauce for the pizza, I have to go buy on the way home," uncle Ed said.
It is already eight in the evening when he arrives back in Cremaloba. His workers have already closed the pizza parlor.
He makes his coffee and sits, finally he can get some rest. After finishing his coffee, he goes back to the kitchen and takes the baking tools and ingredients.
"I have to bake a cake for my niece, it is her birthday tomorrow," said uncle Ed.
His body seems tired but his eyes are always happy.
Short stories can come in different shapes and sizes. It doesn’t even have to be completely fictional either; a short story could be based on your personal narrative. At the bottom line, a short story is about telling a story—about the experience you allow your readers through words. A short story is more than its plot, characters, or theme. It is also about vivid descriptions and beautifying language to stimulate the reader’s imagination. That is how you share a good story.
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