West Chester University

Fall 2002

West Chester University

Spring 2002

Fall 2001





Course Information
  WRT 120 Syllabus
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Effective Writing I
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
  Writing Descriptively
  What Makes a Good Story?
  Building a Thesis
  Notes on 'Purpose'
  Strategies for Writing Introductions
  Strategies for Writing Conclusions
  Assignment #5: Argument
  Understanding Rational Argument

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Fundamental Questions About Literature
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
  Notes on Four Short Stories
  The Genesis of the Short Story
  Defining the Short Story
  The Art of the Short Story
  A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
  Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
  Responding to 'The Birthmark'
  A Guided Reading of 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Bartleby--Questions for Analysis
  A Cultural Context for 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Study Guide for Fiction Exam
  Billy Collins - 'Introduction to Poetry'
  A Catalogue of Poems for Study
  Approaching a Definition of Poetry?
  Reading Poetry
  The Craft of Poetry: Imagery
  Readings from 'The United States of Poetry'
  The Craft of Poetry: Sound
  The Craft of Poetry: Structure
  Lines of Continuity
  Study Guide for Poetry Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  On Tragic Character
  Stepping Through 'Oedipus the King'
  Analyzing 'Oedipus the King'
  The Relevance 'Oedipus'Today
  Study Guide for the Drama Exam

Announcements and Assignments
  WRT 120 Announcements
  WRT 120 Assignments
  LIT 165 Announcements
  Lit 165 Assignments


Go Exploring
  Weblog for WRT 120
  Weblog for LIT 165
  Writing Assistance on the Web

Join an Online Forum
  WRT 120 Composition Forum
  LIT 165 Introduction to Literature Forum

~~ Notes on the Art of the Short Story~~

When it comes to defining the art of the short story, nearly everyone hesitates, including me. We're all a little wary of defining exactly what a short story is, what it's supposed to do. Notice the careful way that writer (and in this case, reviewer) Sven Birkerts begins this review, which appeared in the New York Times a while back. He's getting ready to discuss T. Coraghessan Boyle's new short story collection, After the Plague.

There are probably as many ways to skin the short story cat as there are qualified skinners. What a range of approaches the form allows, and what a range of pleasures it delivers. From Chekov's subtly suggestive bleeding together of characters and circumstances to Borges's sly metaphysical parables to Alice Munro's deep-time feats of narrative counterpoint, every great short-story writer has a unique way of making the world come alive on paper.

My guess is the Times editor working on this article probably cut Birkerts short! Once you start a list like that you can hardly stop. What about the uncanniness of Kafka or Melville, the ironic subtlety of Kate Chopin, the verbal pyrotechnics of John Updike? What about the mythic folkiness of Marquez, the psychological allegories of Hawthorne, or the psychotic characters and suspenseful plots in Poe? Where do you stop with something like this once you start?

Where do we start in our own effort to grasp the art of the short story?

As we've seen previously, although the written "narrative" is at least as old as civilization, the short story as a distinct literary genre, a consciously crafted art-form, developed relatively late in the game, in the 19th century. Even today people who study literature struggle to define precisely what a short story is "supposed' to be, how it's "supposed" to be crafted. Every time someone comes up with a definition—saying, for instance, something like "stories are about real people"—some gleefully playful creative writer comes along and breaks the rule—shatters the rule. Wins a Nobel Prize redefining the parameters. (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for instance) So new definitions have to be fashioned to accommodate the stuff innocently sitting out there on the fringe. Or at least we try not to be so arrogant as to think we can encompass everything with one definition.

But academics have to try; it's what we do. So here's the standard definition from a standard literary glossary:

"[A short story is] a relatively brief fictional narrative in prose, anywhere from 500-15,000 words in length. Distinct from the "sketch" or the "tale" in that it has a definite formal development, finding its unity in more than plot-in character, effect, theme, tone, mood, and style."

This works at least part way, emphasizing formal, measurable elements like length, plot, character, etc., etc. We can make use of it because all of those things do on the whole appear in most short stories. But what about a short story like "Girl"? No plot. Is it not a short story? And there's that very strange point of view. What to make of that? But it works. It started her entire career as a writer in America. Or what about stories just one paragraph, or even just three sentences long?

by Enrique Anderson Imbert

His guardian angel whispered to Fabian, behind his shoulder:
"Careful, Fabian! It is decreed that you will die the minute you pronounce the word doyen."
"Doyen?" asks Fabian, intrigued.
And he dies.

How can we define something that tries so hard to be undefinable?

Fortunately, I think there are ways. I think it's possible to understand the short story by understanding, first, that one of its primary purposes is to reveal a character in action. Even in this three sentence story we have character revealed in action. Fabian wants to listen to his guardian angel, but fate is stronger than human will; the guardian angel (who seems pretty human, too) wants to help but like a schlemiel winds up hurting more than helping. As brief, compact, and compressed as a short story is, the reader gets to know the true nature of its main character, even intimately. Fabian has a guardian angel. There's a lot to infer from that if we wish to. And the guardian angel isn't all that swift. Maybe there's even more to infer from that! Think of how much we know about Miss Brill in just a few short pages of words. Now in a novel, we can watch a character develop over time, as a result of accumulated experience, but in a short story, there's no time. There's more or less one blazing moment, sometimes very brief. The art of the short story as opposed to the novel, then, is economy. Although there are notable exceptions, by and large the action in a short story takes place in a relatively brief period of time—and what happens in this brief period of time gives us a glimpse into the true nature of the person, the human being embroiled in that moment's flame.

Another way to approach understanding the art of the short story is to recognize that there are more than a few elements common to many short stories, and studying these elements can help us get started. You've already identified several of these story "elements" yourselves in class last week. You emphasized issues relating to character, plot, style, theme...obviously you're not novices. These are many of the same basic elements your textbook emphasizes. Let's look more closely at some of these key elements.

Sometimes plots are suspenseful. Sometimes they aren't. Some readers prefer suspenseful plots. Some readers don't care, as long as there is some element of intensity that holds their interest. Some concepts to consider when you're analyzing or evaluating a story's plot are as follows:

  • Exposition: what information do you need to appreciate what will happen during the time frame of the story?
  • Foreshadowing: a technique the author uses to plant the seeds for action that will follow. Early hints to what will happen later.
  • Rising action: When the action/conflict/events intensify
  • Conflict: What are the forces opposed to one another in the story?
  • Crisis: Sometimes called the turning point-when the action reaches its peak or the biggest conflict arises
  • Dilemma: What's the problem at the heart of the action?
  • Crisis point: Sometimes called the climax-the pinnacle of the action.
  • Falling action (denouement): After the climax, the restoration or resolution of the conflict. The outcome.\
  • Epiphany: a moment of startling, sudden insight gained by the main character as a result of the unfolding of events in the story

As you can see, analyzing a story's plot involves more than feeling suspense. Suspense is one small part of the package. Essentially, plot means the artistic arrangement of events in a story; the causal sequence. In life, things happen chaotically. It isn't always possible to trace the causal sequence that binds events to one another. But like practicing Buddhists who believe in causation as an inherent truth—the law of karma—a traditional short story operates on the premise that everything that happens as a result of cause and effect. You may have learned the famous dictum in your high school lit class when you studied Oedipus—one theme of that artful, ancient play is that "character determines fate." Things happen for a reason. In life we can't always discern the reasons why certain things happen. But in an expertly crafted short story, it's possible to discover how we create our circumstances by being the kind of people we are. We create our own fate. Character determines fate. The traditional short story very much lives by that rule.

On the other hand, you may, even in your young years, have come to the conclusion that the universe is absurd, following no laws, or absurd laws. You may have observed bad things happening to good people, or good things happening to bad people, and you may have completely rejected the notion that character determines fate. In that case, you may find yourself bored with the traditional kind of story and your taste may take you out to the fringes. You may be more alternative, with a penchant for Franz Kafka or Samuel Beckett, or you may find yourself drawn to the kind of stories that don't sum up easily or offer easy answers to complex questions, stories that don't telegraph what you should think about them, stories that leave it to you to decide. "What happened?" is often a complex kind of question to answer after reading a story like that. ("Girl" by Jamaica Kinkaid comes to mind…)

This is a pretty straightforward element, meaning, the people in the story. I agree with you that you want characters you can relate to, feel something for, get worked up about. Making that happen is the writer's biggest responsibility, because if you decide you don't care about the characters, you probably don't like the story. You may hate the characters, but that's not the same thing as not caring. When you get apathetic about or bored by a character, the writer may have failed in some important way, or there may be something you're missing.

There are a few ways you can think about the characters you meet in a short story. Here's some new terms to consider:

  • Protagonist—the leading character; the main character
  • Antagonist—the force acting against the main character
  • Flat character—a one-dimensional representation
  • Round character—a multi-dimensional representation
  • Dynamic character—one who changes or grows from beginning to end
  • Static character—one who never changes or grows from beginning to end

No one mentioned this element in the group comments or the individual responses! But every short story has a "storyteller," a narrator, or a voice that tells the story. This voice is NOT the voice of the author, but an element of the story. The narrator can be a crucial part of the story. The point of view is so named because it's the storyteller which determines the angle of vision, the vantage point from which readers see and hear what's going on. There are many familiar, and some unfamiliar points of view possible in a short story.

  • Omniscient narrator—an all-knowing consciousness in the mind of every character simultaneously
  • Limited omniscient narrator—in the mind of one character, usually the main character
  • First Person: reliable vs. unreliable narrators—a character in the story tells the story
  • Objective or "camera eye" narrator—an omnicient narrator with a neutral consciousness, like a camera filming events

Other elements like setting contribute to a story's "form" as well. Some of best stories are those in which form and content merge and reverberate so seamlessly that they seem to be inherently connected to one another.


Fiction, because it is a literary art, shares certain artistic elements with poetry and drama:


We'll visit these terms more in depth in A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond.






Questions? Contact me.

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