The short story’s storytelling elements

Copyright © 2014 Jerry Dunne

Here we examine the short story’s storytelling elements and the restrictions placed on them in comparison to those of longer pieces of fiction. The main storytelling elements consist of character, point of view (POV), plot, conflict, theme, drama and setting. Many of the best short stories will also include irony and a twist so we will look at these, too.

Character definition and development is limited in the short story, and must be completely plot and theme related. Character depth is more hinted at rather than drawn. However, complexity of character is a given and must be three-dimensional. The stereotype belongs to the fable. Usually, one major protagonist is in conflict against one major antagonist. The protagonist, as well as the antagonist, are almost always human, though the antagonist can also be an ideal, an urge, an emotion (like guilt), a psychological, a social or a cultural trait or disorder. As the reader is not making a big emotional investment in the story because of its short length, unlike with the novel, the writer has room to experiment. Character does not have to be particularly good or morally upstanding, and the ending may be unhappy. For example, our heroine’s life may end in tragedy. Or, in the ending of a crime story, the baddie may come out on top; and, if it happens in a fashion which is believable and unexpected, the reader will be happy in a way very unlikely with the novel.

Point of view (POV) is obviously restricted in the short story to one, possibly two perspectives.

The plot will have a beginning, a middle and an end. If there is no plot and no conflict, there’s no story. It’s a vignette or an anecdote or a sample of a story, or some other piece of writing. Of course, the plot does not have to be linear. We could start the story with the resolution and work backwards. The plot will often be broken into scenes. Each scene can be viewed as a piece of a jigsaw that fits perfectly into the overall plot structure. Plot strands or subplots are considered a no no in the short story, though you might make an argument that in the longer length short story (10, 000 words) you have some leeway for it. But if this is the case, the plot strand should only develop on the theme and the main plot.

Once we have the set-up (see the 3 act plot structure) the story’s conflict should begin with the inciting incident and continue until the climax in the third act. Conflict has no particular restriction in the short story in and of itself. Other elements will naturally restrict its development.

The theme is the message or philosophical angle in the story. It is a very powerful element of the story, particularly when it is a timeless and universal theme. Sometimes it’s obvious what the theme is, sometimes not. Most themes can be explored reasonably well in the short story but are done so in a much tighter and more specific way than in the novel.

Setting may be incidental or critical to the story. If the setting is not necessary for character, plot or conflict development, or for the creation of tension or suspense then the setting is incidental and described very briefly. A critical setting may be important to character, plot or conflict development, and if so, then the setting will also help evoke mood and build tension and suspense. Descriptions of critical setting should be used strategically and sparingly in the short story.

Drama is conflict fuelled by the addition of moral choices. Most modern fiction has drama as an intrinsic element of the story, unless the story is aimed solely at humour.

In particular, irony will be an important part of the story when the theme is based on a plot-driven universal human flaw(s). The character’s or characters’ flaw(s) will push the action that will create the conflict, and the irony will rise out of the conflict, exposing the human flaws in an ironic light.

Irony and the twist are closely related. The twist usually arises out of the irony which means the twist will come naturally and not appear to be forced.

Although it is not really a storytelling element as such, we will mention time period here as in the short story it is generally restricted to help keep the story focused, intense and immediate. A short time period is less likely to introduce new scene or character. However, if the main storytelling elements are kept tightened, the time period may stretch, and the story may still keep its focus. Much depends on the type of story and the skills of the storyteller.

The restrictions on number of characters and character development, POV, plot, setting and time period imposed on the short story help to build a clear and intense focus on a single ‘issue’ or ‘concern’, unlike in the novel where the focus can involve many characters, plot-strands, POVs, settings and a lengthy time period. The single ‘issue’ or ‘concern’ is usually an isolated or self-contained event or incident of some sort. This concentration of focus is designed to create a powerful influence on the reader’s psyche that will keep the purpose or message of the story in the reader’s mind long after the reading is over.

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