There are many types of short stories, and depending on what you’re trying to achieve with them, you might need to aim slightly different.
This is your preliminary classification (that I’m going to use, not necessarily a definitive thing) and the reading list should you decide to get familiar with some stories before you go through the rest of the course.
The recommendations are mostly science fiction and fantasy with some “mainstream” thrown in because that’s mostly what I read in short stories. I also read mystery short stories, but none of them seem to have stuck in my mind, and romance short stories are virtually non-existent in traditional markets today. Though if you feel a need to see a romance master in action in short stories, you could do worse than Pistols For Two by Georgette Heyer.
If you prefer more contemporary short stories in romance, you’ll have to find them yourself. I simply haven’t read any because when I’m looking for a romance to read I tend to pick both “sweet” or “traditional” (Not a prude, but if I wanted to read erotica, I’d do so.) and to pick longer works, so I can relax for two or three hours.
Also, I asked my fangroup to compile a list (they run heavily to sf/f for some reason) but everything recommended in the body of the article (the fan list is at the end) is stuff I’ve read. Most of the need for the list was to jog my memory which sucks for names and titles. Note that many of these are whole collections (and one is an Audio) because the stories aren’t for sale on their own.
We’ll start with the Surprise Ending– which is what most people look for in a short story, particularly if they have never really read short stories.
Surprise endings are great. You’re going along, think you know exactly what is happening, and suddenly, blammo, the rug gets yanked from under your feet, and you are completely turned around and realize everything is different.
They’re particularly loved in mystery. Because, well… mystery.
They are also hellishly difficult to do. I no longer actually try to do them (and remember I have over a 100 stories professionally published.) Doesn’t mean I don’t do them, because sometimes a story turns around mid-writing and bites me, so to speak, but I don’t aim to do it.
Most newbies attempting a surprise ending fall on their faces.
I won’t tell you not to write them (I believe in free will) but I will tell you that you shouldn’t try till your thirty-first story.
But if this is your passion, go ahead, read O. Henry.
For more subtle surprise endings, try The Men Who Murdered Mohammed by Alfred Bester, or The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke.
Then there is what I call The Feelings Story.
The good ones of this also have a plot and action and everything but are aimed directly at your feelings. These stories will gut punch you, bring tears to your eyes or even – harder – give you a feeling of boundless happiness.
I will say right now that short stories tend to have more of an effect on your emotions than novels. Sure, novels also take you on an emotional journey – the good ones, at least – but short stories can make the experience more concentrated and deliberate.
These stories set out to play with your emotions and hold nothing back. And sometimes they don’t have a ton of action, but still get you. They’re often structured as “coming to realize that” and it’s something with a deep and resonant emotion.
If this is your ambition, you’re going to have to be very careful on the structure, the editing, the placement of each and every word. You’ve got to learn to swing that metaphorical glove like a pro: right into the reader’s gut. A well done feels story will be remembered forever. But place a foot wrong, and you get a wet firecracker.
Sense of Wonder short stories:
They might or might not get you in the feels. You might or might not go misty-eyed. But dear Lord, you will finish, put the book down and go “Wow, that was…”
A lot of these stories are based on world building, on revealing that the world was not quite what you thought it was. There is often action and even a little mystery, as in Heinlein’s The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. Or also, and in a completely different way, Heinlein’s All You Zombies. But Heinlein was by no means the only to play with this. In fact it’s a go to staple of science fiction. You could try Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder It’s not quite as difficult as the surprise ending, because it takes more …. Layering and building little by little, without obfuscating as much. Some, like The Nine Billion Names of God, by Arthur C. Clarke, are low on action, but still turn your world upside down.
Gimmick short stories: These are fun to do/read. Think of Captain Kirk in the old Star Trek and the “trick” he often used to get out of a situation/fix something. These are like that. Sometimes, of course, the “trick” doesn’t work as in Liar! by Isaac Asimov. In fact, even though the trick doesn’t work, this is the quintessential “trick” story since it has clearly stated laws the character must get around. There’s also Leg. Forst. By Simak. Also The Long Watch by Robert A. Heinlein.
The Short Short – Something under 2k words. I’m not going to give you examples, mostly because I haven’t scouted out any, other than the Don Camilo Stories by Giovanni Guareschi. (You don’t have to be Catholic to enjoy them.) But these are the type of stories that often make it to mainstream magazines and the like. They are not my main reads but I must have read thousands of them in waiting rooms and such places. Again, I have a lousy memory for titles and authors both. The reason most of my examples are classic SF is that I read those early to enough to remember the names of the authors and the stories. I do, however, understand the structure of this type of story (or one type of this type of story) and we’ll cover that too. By then I’ll have dredged up some titles to give you as examples.
You don’t have to read any of these stories (probably) to follow what I’m teaching, and honestly, the classifications are pretty individual to me, and based on what I think I can give you as a story structure and cheat sheet to make it easy for you to write your first shorts.
The good stories often blend all of the structures/classifications, and once you’re running you’ll do that too. For now, I’m just trying to guide you on your first steps.
Next post we’ll discuss short story ideas versus novel ideas, shrinking to fit and the basics of the short story.
Then we’ll start on each of the types, complete with instructions and cheat cheats for trying it out at home fun!