9 Key Elements of a Short Story: What They Are and How to Apply Them

The article 9 Key Elements of a Short Story: What They Are and How to Apply Them appeared first on The Write Practice.

If you’re new to short story writing, it can be intimidating to think of fitting everything you need in a story into a small word count. Do you need to apply certain elements of a short story in order for it to be great?

Writers like you struggle with this all the time.

You might want to develop deep character backgrounds with a huge cast of characters, amazing settings, and have at least two subplots. And that’s great. But that wouldn’t be writing a short story.

You might try to cut some of these things, and then all the sudden you don’t have a character arc or a climax or an ending.

Every story has basic elements; a short story’s basic elements are just more focused than a novel’s. But all those elements must be there, and yes, they need to fit into a short word count.

In this article, you’ll learn what you need to make sure your short story is a complete story—with three famous short story examples. These story elements are what you should focus on when writing a short piece of fiction.

The Key to Compelling Stories: It’s NOT Dun, Dun, DUUN!

When I first started writing, I mainly worked on horror short stories. I wanted to create that dun, dun, DUUUN!moment at the end of all of them. You know the one. In the movies it’s where the screen goes to black and you’re left feeling goosebumps.

I remember the first contest I entered (right here at The Write Practice!), I submitted a story that I thought was pretty decent, but didn’t really think would win.

I was right; it did not win.

But mainly I wanted the upgrade I’d purchased: feedback from the judge. She was great and told me my writing was good and tight, but there was one major issue with my story.

The dun, dun, DUUN!

I’d tried to cultivate actually meant my story just…cut off. There was no ending. There wasn’t even a complete climax. I got it ramped up and then just…stopped.

That feedback changed me as a short story writer. It made me really pay attention to what needed to be in a story versus what was unnecessary.

I studied short stories. I made note of what an author did and where. I basically taught myself story structure.

This may seem obvious, but a short story, even though it’s short, still needs to be a story.

So let’s start with the basics.

P.S. If you want to learn more about the five major steps you need to complete to write a short story, read this article.

What is a Story?

I know a man who consistently tells stories during parties.

He starts out well but then goes off on tangent after tangent, ultimately not really getting to any sort of point.

New people (re: characters) are introduced, then dropped. New events mentioned, but not resolved. By the time he gets to the end of his “stories,” eyes have glazed over and the “punchline,” as it were, falls flat.

What this man is telling is a short story, and he’s doing it terribly.

A story, no matter the length, can be boiled down to a character wanting something, having a hard time getting it, and finally either getting it or not.

That’s it.

When it comes down to it, a writer can boil a story down to one important element: a character wanting something—and how they attempt to attain that want.
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Stories are actually simple when you look at the basics. This is why writing short stories will make you a better writer.

Short stories force a writer to practice nailing structure and pace. If you nail those things, you’ll be able to write stories of any length (and not bore people at parties).

And like novel-length stories, short stories contain certain elements in order to hold up the structure and pace.

For each story element below, I’ll use three classic stories as examples:

  • Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”
  • Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”
  • O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”)

Take a few minutes to refresh your memory by clicking on the links of each, if you wish.

9 Key Elements of a Short Story

When it comes does to the elements of a short story, focus on nine key elements that determine if the short story is a complete story, or a half-baked one.

A short story contains nine key elements that make it a complete story. Learn about each in this article.
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1. Character

Characters in books are well-drawn. There’s a lot of time spent on developing character depth and backstory. That’s not needed for short stories.

Short stories need one central character and one or two other major characters. That’s about it. There isn’t enough room to have a ton of characters and a story will veer away from the central plotline if a large cast is present.

The reader doesn’t need to know everything about this character. They don’t even need to know their physical appearance if it’s not vital to the story. Your character traits in short stories can be so minimal, they don’t even need a name.

This doesn’t mean the protagonist is a static character who is basically a zombie on a couch. They still have to be a dynamic character, one that changes throughout the story.

When you’re thinking of character creation for short stories, you don’t need to dive into too much detail. Two to three character details are normally enough.

See how the three short story examples used in this article develop characters:

The Lottery

The main character is Tessie Hutchinson.

We don’t know much about Tessie, other than she’s unkempt and arrives late with a slew of jokes. You’ll no doubt note here that this story has a lot of characters, not just two or three.

But notice only a few of the other characters are fleshed out much at all. The other characters of note here are:

  1. Mr. Hutchinson
  2. Mr. Summers
  3. Old Man Warner.

The Cask of Amontillado

This short story has significantly fewer characters:

  1. The main character
  2. Montresor
  3. Fortunato.

The Gift of the Magi

There are only two named characters:

  1. Della, the main character
  2. Jim, Della’s husband

2. Want/Goal

The central character needs to want something—even if it’s a glass of water, as Kurt Vonnegut famously said. (They can also not want something. But they have to have an opinion either way.) The story is their quest to get said something.

Obviously, in real life people want multiple things, often at once and often in contrast to each other. But in a short story, the goal needs to be focused and relatively simple.

This want/goal is important to the story plot. This is what drives the character’s decisions as they move throughout the space of your story. The goals in the short story examples are:

The Lottery

Tessie, as with every other person who shows up at the lottery, doesn’t want to get chosen.

The Cask of Amontillado

Montresor wants revenge for an insult Fortunato threw his way while drunk.

The Gift of the Magi

Della wants to give her husband a Christmas gift.

3. Conflict

Obstacles and complications need to make the protagonist’s journey hard, and these conflicts should raise the stakes as the protagonist tries to achieve their want/goal.

In books, multiple things need to get in the way of the character completing the goal, but in short stories, there can be as little as one conflict.

Conflict stems from the antagonist, whether that’s an external baddie (character conflicts with each other), an internal issue, nature, or society being against them. Here’s how conflict works in our three examples:

The Lottery 

Tessie conflicts with the other townsfolk, her husband (who is more rule-abiding than she is), and the overall way of life the lottery is forcing.

The Cask of Amontillado

The main conflict is this supposed insult Fortunato made to Montresor. Interestingly, even though this story is a rather brutal revenge story, there isn’t much

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