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Spinel's avatar

What makes a good short story, in your opinion?

Asked by Spinel (3220points) January 1st, 2010

What draws you into a short story? The characters, the setting, the plot? What makes a short story impact or stick with you? What is that one element?

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16 Answers

Jeruba's avatar

I don’t think there is one element. I have found different stories compelling for different reasons.

What draws me in is apt to be the language: the language and some quality of perception, much more than a situation or some kind of “grabber.” I don’t want to be grabbed. I want to be invited, enticed, intrigued, amused, enlightened, mystified, surprised, inspired, refreshed, touched, frightened, uncloaked, horrified, grieved, enchanted, and enriched, but not grabbed.

What I remember afterward is not necessarily what drew me in.

Zen_Again's avatar

While Jeruba * sigh * crafts her response, which I so look forward to reading, I’ll just say that as a fan of short stories and mysteries in general, I like a surprise ending.

Plot development, interesting characters, well written prose are a given of course, but if you’ve read any O Henry, then you’ll understand what kind of short stories appeal to me the most.

And you?

Oh, and welcome to fluther @Spinel – Great Question (GQ)

Here’s a link to one of my all-time favourites

Spinel's avatar

@Zen_Again – thank you for the warm welcome. Greatly appreciated. :)

I would have to say character. Characters with soul…characters who can breath and impact the heart. A character with highly unbelievable traits and incredibly strange reactions will send me hurling back to reality – often for good. On the other side, a hopelessly flat character in a leading role will fail. Since characters are the soul (in my opinion) of a short more especially novels, characters with to many many angles or no angles at all will kill an a tale, no matter how delicious other parts may be.

Prose is also a highlighted area for me. Writing horrible from the start will dispel me faster than a wildfire.

So @Jeruba, prose is at the top of your list, so to speak?

Zen_Again's avatar

@Spinel Character development is key, especially for your generation who grew up with TV and film. When you read, you visualise – which is normal.

I personally do not. I don’t think too much about how he looks. It is important to develop the character to some extent, or he will be boring. But a great chraracter, without an amazing story behind him, won’t carry a story, short or long, for reading or for film.

N’est ce pas?

Jeruba's avatar

@Spinel, you asked what draws me in. By that I take you to mean the beginning of the story. It’s the language that makes me want to read on, and it is certainly poor use of language that makes me pass over a story.

Short stories have to unfold rather rapidly, so there is not a lot of setting-up time. Once I am into the story, it is the character that holds me.

In retrospect it is as likely as not to be the plotline or situation that I recall, usually even more than the main character. But I will remember if the author used language beautifully.

eeveegurl's avatar

I’m going to risk being judged here and say that as an impatient reader, I’m much more interested in plot development rather than character development. That’s not to say that when reading a novel, I don’t enjoy getting to know the character, but what makes a short story memorable and enrapturing to me is what goes on in the plot.

I’m a huge fan of Roald Dahl short stories, that I think everyone should read and enjoy :)

absalom's avatar

I feel like this question is hopeless.

I like short stories that aren’t hopeless.

Spinel's avatar

@eeveegurl, the other side of the spectrum is always welcome. :)

@Zen_Again, what I mean is a character who has something odd to them contrary to what the creator of the character has already put forward. For example, a character who is a great mercenary and fights the same opponent constantly. Then one day he runs away and the author gives no reason for it. That kind of character treatment dispels me.

Jeruba's avatar

@Spinel, what do you meal by saying it dispels you? I have never seen that word used with respect to a person.

Spinel's avatar

In the context of my usage, I mean the character drives me away, literally. I do thank you for pointing that out. To my knowledge, the way of usage there is not grammatically incorrect, but perhaps I am to liberal with the word. I’ll look into that.

Replace dispel with repel when you read my answers, if you don’t mind.

Jeruba's avatar

^ ^ “mean,” not “meal”

Ok, thanks, I understand.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

Here’s my all-time favorite.

@Zen_Again, too funny. I didn’t read your link until after I posted this.

Zen_Again's avatar

@PandoraBoxx—That’s why we’re in love – we think alike. Muah

Merriment's avatar

For me, the most important element are the words they choose.

For example from Leaves in the Life of an Idler by Henry S. Armstrong:

When a man whom you have every reason to believe not only the coolest, but the most unimpressible, of beings, suddenly turns white as a ghost and shivers with a nervous spasm, it is safe to suppose he is frightened. But when terror, turning into rage, changes one of the most attentive and respectful of servants into a madman, it is scarcely safe to suppose anything.

These are the kinds of words that make you just die of curiosity to see what is next.

wundayatta's avatar

I’m a believer in the first line hook. I like to know what the conflict is in the first line, and I want to know why it’s different. It might help to know that I read mostly science fiction. Sometimes the hook need only be in the first paragraph. But whatever the story is about, I need to know right away.

That doesn’t mean it has to be about plot. It can be about character or about language or whatever. I just want to know what the story is about, or a hint as to what it might be about, right away,

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

Characterization in a compressed form is key. The characterization work of John McPhee is classic, although much of his work really doesn’t fit into the true short-story genre.

Generally, it has to have a “grab” at the beginning and an interesting “twist” at the end to be satisfying. You don’t have the luxury of scene-painting and leisurely plot development.

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