Short Fiction: My Study Guide

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A short story is a different thing all together – a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger. ~Stephen King

Short Fiction- My Study Guide

Short stories are like Brunch; tasty little morsels of brain food that can be serious and heavy or light and refreshing and pair well with a strong drink.  

But, apparently, there are a lot of rules to them.

I wanted to write short stories just to gain some skill, enter a few contests and try to submit some to online magazines.  I did get to enter the CBC short story contest, but missed the deadline for the NYCMIDNIGHT one (I finished a rough draft though!).  

I used to write things for friends. There was this girl I had a crush on, and she had a teacher she didn’t like at school. I had a real crush on her, so almost every day I would write her a little short story where she would kill him in a different way. ~Stephen Colbert

I also began a series of fantasy short stories about Roland the Brave, written for my son.  It’s about a young adult who is destined to roam the lands fighting monsters, who have slowly began appearing in the world again.  Now, these are for pure pleasure and I don’t worry about all the rules and guidelines that short stories are supposed to have.  They are just for the fun of writing for my son, and I get my husband to participate by picking two random words that I have to integrate into the story. Last month he picked window washer and coil LOL!

A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit. ~David Sedaris

Anyway, back to the rules for short stories.  Everyone seems to have a say on what they should and shouldn’t have, but what they seem to agree on is that your story has to deliver a punch, take a sharp left turn, offer a nice kapow in a short time, all the while showing off the structure, theme, symbolism, imagery, setting, and on and on with literary devices.

Read  Kurt Vonnegut‘s, The Write Practice, & Writer’s Digest on how to write a short story.

“So many people can now write competent stories that the short story is in danger of dying of competence.”
― Flannery O’Connor

The best thing one can do is read short stories, so I started with a lot of the classics (I will list some below), but there are also so many amazing contemporary magazines and websites out there.  The few I really enjoy are Short Fiction Break, TOR, DarkFuseMagazine.

Here’s some of the classics, which are really good to read because there are so many guides, critical essays and studies done on them so you can compare your thoughts and really dig down into the story. 

  • “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”  Joyce Carol Oates
  • “The Things They Carried”  Tim O’Brien
  • “Bradbury Stories”
  • “The Tell-Tale Heart”  Edgar Allen Poe
  • “The Lottery”  Shirley Jackson
  • “The Story of an Hour”  Kate Chopin
  • “A Rose for Emily” William Faulkner

Next is all the literary devices that you can use in your story.  The main ones I have been studying and trying to be cognizant of while writing are Theme, metaphor, simile, imagery and symbols.

Theme Definition:

Literature and the writing process defines the theme as follows:

“Theme has been defined in many ways: The central idea or thesis; the central thought the underlying meaning, either implied or directly stated; the general insight revealed by the entire story; the central truth; the dominating idea; the abstract concept that is made concrete through representation in person, action and image.” (McMahan 188)(1)

One of my favorite quotes in this textbook is, “One of the pleasures of reading a good story comes from deciding what it means and why it captures your interest” (McMahan 188)(2)

Grab a copy- used if you can- it’s worth it for your writing arsenal. (Amazon) Dictionary definition: “A theme can be an underlying topic of a discussion or a recurring idea in an artistic work.” (3)

David Farland wrote, “ Themes in the story might be called the underlying philosophical arguments in your tale. A story doesn’t need to have a theme in order for it to be engaging. Likeable protagonists undergoing engaging conflicts is all that you need in order to hold a reader. But a tale that tackles a powerful theme will tend to linger with you much longer. Indeed, such tales can even change the way that a reader thinks, persuade him in important arguments.” (4)

This is undeniably true, all the best stories grab you by the gut, make you feel, make you think. They teach you how to empathize and help you understand other people and their world, their struggles. Theme is what creates that bond with a reader.

David Farland also writes an amazing blog for writers here.

Metaphor Definition: 

“A figure of speech that makes an imaginative comparison between two literally unlike things.” (McMahan 1168)(5)

ex) The mall was a zoo.  She was drowning in a sea of grief. He is the apple of my eye.

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” – William Wordsworth

Simile Definition:

“a verbal comparison in which a similarity is expressed directly, using like or as:  ‘houses leaning together like conspirators’ – James Joyce.(McMahan 1171)(6)

ex) Your eyes shine like the sun.  Like a moth to the flame. As big as a bear.

Imagery Definition:

 “Passages or words that stir feelings or memories through an appeal to the senses.” (McMahan 1167) (7)

Imagery uses all the sense, not just what we see with our eyes. It recruits sound, smell, touch, feelings, and motion.

ex) “Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.” (The Lord of the Rings p.369)(8)

Symbol Definition:

“Something that suggests or stands for an idea, quality, or concept larger than itself: the lion is a symbol of courage; a voyage or journey can symbolize life; water suggests spirituality, dryness the lack thereof.” (McMahan 1172)(9)

The textbook further explains Symbols: “If a repeated image gathers significant meaning and seems ti stand for something more than itself, it becomes a symbol.” (McMahan 135) (10)

The text uses “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson to further explore symbolism, so take some time Googling or reading up on it if you want to learn more.

ex) in Lord of the Rings, the Ring is a symbol, a symbol of evil, possession, urges, power.

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.”
― Neil Gaiman

Good luck with your writing! Hopefully I will be posting some short stories here soon, I write everything longhand, so it takes a while to type and edit them after.  Also, baby makes a couple hour job a couple days job lol!



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Pls note, I barely remember how to do citations and was just using to ensure people could see where I got my information from.  

  1. (McMahan, Elizabeth. Literature and the writing process. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.)
  2. (McMahan, Elizabeth. Literature and the writing process. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.)
  3. “Theme – Dictionary Definition.” N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.
  4. “Boosting Your Story (a Checklist).” David Farland. N.p., 18 Mar. 2016. Web. 02 Feb. 2017.
  5. (McMahan, Elizabeth. Literature and the writing process. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.)
  6. (McMahan, Elizabeth. Literature and the writing process. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.)
  7. (McMahan, Elizabeth. Literature and the writing process. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.)
  8. Tolkien, J. R. R. The lord of the rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.
  9. (McMahan, Elizabeth. Literature and the writing process. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.)
  10. (McMahan, Elizabeth. Literature and the writing process. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.)