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!



  1. Tippled, tricked,he tripped, got up & tipped.
    If that’s a story, that’s mine. If not, then it belongs to the guy in the next cubicle 🙂

    Comment by RAJESH KUMAR — November 24, 2006 @ 9:26 pm | Reply

  2. Toss a coin! 🙂

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — November 24, 2006 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

  3. Wikipedia tackles this questions in its entry on “flash fiction,” in which it compares short, short-short, micro, flash, word-count, and other popular iterations of short(er((est))) stories.

    Comment by davidbdale — December 1, 2006 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

  4. Hi David,
    Glad to have you back. Sure, I’ll check out this entry you mention. But I’m curious about this, David. How did you get interested in the shorter form of story telling? Is there a story behind it that you’d like to share with us?

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — December 1, 2006 @ 9:05 pm | Reply

  5. No story, really, Geeta. I just never graduated to anything longer. I don’t sound authoritative past the second page and I lose interest myself in anything that takes more than a page to really get going. Which is not to say I don’t read novels. I do, but they have to be extraordinary or I will abandon them.

    Comment by davidbdale — December 1, 2006 @ 11:22 pm | Reply

  6. Yes, you lose interest beyond the first page and say what you want to say in a few well-chosen words. That is a gift, David. I should know. For nearly three decades, I had kids returning fat manuscripts as answer papers. I would read page after page all night only to feel “just what is their argument”? Which is why I made that point about not stating the obvious. The best writers in any class were those kids who could write neat summaries of the passages I gave them. They knew how to pick the purpose of that piece of writing and put it down in a highly readable form using only one-third of the words used. I still remember this guy in class XII whose summaries were much better than the original pasages written by “great” writers!

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — December 2, 2006 @ 7:19 am | Reply

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