Grandma's Tales

November 20, 2006

How long is a short story?

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 1:07 am

Friend Rajesh wants to know the basic components of a short story. Lists may vary, but a lot of people I respect and writers I admire seem to agree on a few points. Let’s look at them.

The major one is what triggers a short story in your mind. Imagine you are at a busy railway station. You watch people milling around. There! That guy with a large parcel in hand, rushing off toward the platform, where is he going? How come he only has a shoulder bag for luggage? Is he going to see someone off? Is he travelling to the next town? What is in the parcel, a gift? Something dangerous? Who is it for?

Now, there you have the beginning of a plot. A plot that has a conflict. In the story above, you could build the suspense, by focusing on the parcel. “As he boarded the train, the man near the door put out his hand to take the parcel. “No!” he (our man) shouted. “I’ll carry it myself.” The conflict, the suspense, the what-will-happen-next quality is what will get the readers to engage with your story.

A plot does not mean a description. A plain description of a place or a person will end up as a plain paragraph.

There is something you need to avoid completely, kill the temptation for. Do not state the obvious. “He walked down the platform, went to the door, climbed the steps, held the grab rail and got into the train.” Yawn!

Next, you need characters. Are you going to write about a person, an animal, or a group of people (particular or general)? Is your character(s) realistic? Fully developed? Are they people to whom readers can relate? Do they have discernible personalities? My teacher once suggested a character cluster. In bubbles around the word “character”, we were asked to scribble brief descriptions of looks, work, relationship history, family, mannerism, beliefs … of each character. Know your characters well. Then it’s easier to get them to do what you want.

Try giving your character a flaw. Also a motivation for his action.

Next, where does your story take place? You could place it in a familiar setting (Churchgate station, Juhu beach). But make sure you get your facts right. You don’t want someone saying, “Hey, a mountain near the XYZseashore? Must have grown since I visited it last week!”

You could also create a setting. The finest example is of course, RK Narayan’s Malgudi. Read his books to see that town come alive with its landmarks and the “so believable!” characters. When a class put up an exhibition of Narayan’s works, they made a diorama of this village. Every visitor was asked, “Where is Malgudi?”. The kids did this with a straight face. Most people said it was in Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. When we told them it was fictional, their uniform reaction was, “But it’s so real!”

The ending: Have you read O’ Henry’s stories (The Cop and the Anthem)? James Herriot’s? Somerset Maugham’s? Have you read the story The Monkey’s Paw? Saki (HH Munroe)’s The Open Window? The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell? The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin? Stories of Anton Chekov? A J Cronin?  Thurber?

The list is long. There are people who swear by Isaac Asimov, who wrote all those sci-fi stories. The point is, a short story could be woven around any uncomplicated theme. It (often) has rising action, crisis, climax and finally, resolution. And a sting in the tail, an unexpected ending.

There are also open-ended stories. These are very effective since the reader is invited to form his own conclusion. Do read Rabindranath Tagore’s stories. Try also The Lady or the Tiger? by Frank Stockton.

davidbdale, who writes all those wonderful stories, uses exactly 299 words to compose a short story. You can see two major strengths in his stories: one is insight (the considered thought, the depth of understanding of his theme, a fresh way to look at a subject … call it what you want). The other is his choice of words and phrases. It makes his writing concise (language), “pared own to essentials”.

But then, as we have seen, you can write a short story in six words or less. In those stories, most of us tend to give the ending away!


Blog at