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The Key to a Good Short Story

edited January 2012 in Writing
HI guys. Being new to writing I'm attempting to write some short stories, but I do have a few questions. In your opinion what makes a good short story? Do they always have to have a twist? Is it better in the first or third person? Should a short story be more description than dialogue? I really need to read some good short stories in order to answer some of my questions. Can anyone recommend any good short story collections etc? Any advice would be welcomed :-)


  • It very much depends on who you are aiming your short stories at- competitions, anthologies, womens magazine.

    All stories need the basics, but whether you have more dialogue than description and narrative often depends on the length and subject of the story, as well as how you write (in my opinion). A story doesn't have to have a twist.

    Same with POV- some magazines prefer third person, others markets won't care...
    Do you seem to have a natural preference when you write a story?

    There are quite a few TB's who have been published in womags, and anthologies who will be better than me for giving advice.
  • I agree with Carol - it depends what you intend doing with the story. Still as a general rule I'd advise ..

    Do they always have to have a twist?
    No, not at all*. You shouldn't be able to guess what's going to happen right from the start though. *unless you are writing for a market that wants twist ending stories.

    Is it better in the first or third person?
    That depends very much on the story* - some work better in 1st, some 3rd and rarely 2nd will be the better option. *Unless you're writing for somewhere that doesn't like a particular viewpoint.

    Should a short story be more description than dialogue?
    Generally keep description to a minimum and have plenty of action and dialogue. Note action doesn't have to be car chases, it can be making a cup of tea.

    Can anyone recommend any good short story collections?
    If you could have your work published anywhere, where would it be? Once you've worked that out, read whatever you come up with.
  • edited January 2012
    Hi, Paulina! I've read & written a number of short stories, both in first and third person narrative - both styles need substance of character, but neither need much dialogue if you so wish to keep that to a minimum. My first published 'short' in a motorcycle magazine was a ghost story, more descriptive as third-person, and worked well (so the editor said, anyway! :-) ), but another that's only seen the blog-publishing light was in first person, much longer, and I believe a good bit more suspenseful.

    It depends on your preferred genre, obviously, but stories are exactly what you make them - it's purely down to your imagination, so feel free to experiment!! There are plenty of people on this forum who will be more than willing to offer a fair critique of a short (or long) story, privately. Best thing to do is to just read as many differnet genres, styles & plots as you can, and develop your own style from inspiration; I think that's what most of us have done here...

    If you fancy a read of my last effort, visit:


    It's a two-part story, the second instalment in the side menu under December... ;-)
  • What makes a good short story? Lots of things that are not easy to define, but the ability to move your reader, to get them to take the journey, to read on and to want to know what happens in the end. Not only that, but to entertain, to take them from reality and immerse them into another place, another time. Then there are elements such as the right plot and the right characterisation, because without these your story will not work.

    And PM is right, stories do not have to have twists. A fulfilling, credible conclusion is what matters.

    POV is at the discretion of the writer. It's what works for you and your story. Some work in 1st person, others work in 3rd. Short stories do benfit from being in 1st person because it creates immediacy, which is more effective when writing between 1000 - 10,000 words. Having said that, 3rd person is just as good. Find what you feel comfortable with.

    Description and dialogue must have balance to a certain degree. It really depends on genre and your target audience. Too much dialogue can kill a short story because you are not allowing your reader to experience the richness and depth created by description. Conversely, too much description and not enough dialogue could also cause the story to fail.

    I have some pointers here that might help you:

  • I think that if the reader can feel - and want to feel - that they are standing in the story beside your character, not watching from afar, you've got it sussed. If your character feels, they should feel it too.
    Best thing to do? Read stories published where you want to be published. No point aiming for People's Friend if you want to see your name in a horror anthology, for instance!
    But above all, write: you may not know for ages what sort of thing suits your voice, or takes you where you want to go, and you won't know till you try.
    Good luck!
  • A good opening, strong entertaining middle, satisfying end. Its really easy this writing game. ;~)
    Recommend Hemingway and Chekhow.
  • Characters and emotion are the key. The reader has to believe in the characters (especially the main character) and care what happens to them, and be moved in some way to feel emotion, whether shedding a tear, being terrified or revelling in a romantic happy ending! Otherwise they will get to the end and just say: 'So what?' Bring your characters to life through dialogue and action, not lots of straight description. Allow the reader ro use their own imagination and fill in any gaps, as that is far more satisfying than being given every detail. 'Show, don't tell' is an old adage but still works for me!
  • edited January 2012
    Some recommendations here from other Talkbackers, Paulina:


    If the link doesn't work, it's a thread called:

    Please recommend a short story for me to read
  • Agree with all the above, especially the 'Show, don't tell' adage.

    The stories I most often reject at Thrillers, Killers 'n' Chillers are those that read like an account - this happened, then that happened. Even stories with the best plots and twists (and no, twists aren't necessary) need to enthral the reader, allowing them to get lost in the story.

    Oh, and realistic dialogue too. Read it back to yourself - would someone really speak like that in real life?

    Out of interest, which genres do you like to write in?
  • Thanks for that, Red! I have books on writing but your advice is concise and will help me, as a term of reference, having printed off the relevant bits (minus examples).
  • Hi Paulina,

    I think the most honest advice I can give you is that you need to find out for yourself what makes a good story, as if you are trying to write them you need to make sure you're writing something you genuinely believe in. Read as many as you can, in plenty of different styles - old classics, new ones, stories from big name authors and those of us amateur types, too. When you find one you like, reread it and see if you can pinpoint what you like about it. Look at how it's constructed - How is information released to the reader? Does the author do anything clever with the time line or the way they use language? How are the characters established and what makes them seem believable? Likewise, if you find one you don't like, ask yourself what's wrong with it - where does the author lose your interest? What could they have changed that would have increased your enjoyment?

    There is no one formula that will work for every writer as sadly - or perhaps fortunately - readers don't all like the same thing. Everyone has their own opinion of what makes a good story and I don't know for certain, but I imagine it would be almost impossible to produce really good writing in a style or genre that you personally hated.
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