Short stories are ideal for travellers and busy people. I recently enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri's collection An Interpreter of Maladies. I read two stories on the ferry going, and two coming back. Perfect. My favorite was called Mrs. Sen's, about a woman trying and failing to adjust to an unfamiliar life.

Writing a short story is no mean feat:  within its constraints, the author must use the same literary devices as a novel, but in a much more limited format. How do you create fear, elation, excitement, suspense, sorrow, in the span of so few pages? It's an art that takes practice, skill and restraint.

There is some dissent about what defines a short story. It's widely agreed to be longer than flash fiction, but shorter than a novella. The maximum length is said to be anywhere from 7,000 to 20,000 words.

Some authors don't need that many. In his story Reunion, John Cheever creates a character so complete in The Father that the reader can imagine his whole life before and his whole life to come, his interactions with others, and more. To accomplish such an intense dislike of a character in such a small space is impressive. A complete portrait, in the neighborhood of 1,000 words. 

Some need even fewer. Annie Proulx's Close Range: Wyoming Stories contains a story called 55 Miles to the Gas Pump, which in fewer than 300 words manages to make the reader shudder in horror at the grotesqueness of a loathsome rancher, and the grisly discovery he leaves behind when he commits suicide.

In the same collection, The Blood Bay is clever and witty enough to elicit real grins from its readers, while Brokeback Mountain is bitter, unjust and heartbreaking. A short story, done well, takes little time to bring the reader right into the narrative.stack of short story collections

Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love consists of 17 stories, each with unique, crystal insight into the way people work and interact with each other. The eighth story in the book, Tell the Women We're Going is unforgettably shocking and upsetting.

Shirley Jackson's The Lottery is another chilling piece, in which a small American community sets about preparing for their annual lottery; children gather stones, everyone talks excitedly about who will be selected this year, and finally, it is revealed that the town ritualistically observes an annual sacrifice to ensure a plentiful harvest for the year, and the lottery winner will be stoned to death by their peers and neighbors.

One of the finest examples of an ironic, twist ending would be found in The Necklace by French author Guy de Maupassant, in which a woman learns a valuable lesson - the hard way - about greed and what it means to be rich.

In a cynical world, and without the luxury of whole chapters of character development, history and background, a short story has its work cut out when it tries to be moving, to make the reader genuinely care about the outcome for the characters. Two stories in particular have achieved that for me. One is Back Pain, from Bronwen Wallace's collection People You'd Trust Your Life To, which, in under 18 pages seems to encapsulate all of the complexities, fury and love in the mother-daughter relationship.  The other is Blueprints from the Barbara Kingsolver compilation Homeland and Other Stories, in which David and Lydia, a couple struggling with the disintegration of their relationship, come together in a crisis to remember why they love each other in the first place. Both are written with painful honesty, the characters clumsily trying to make sense of unfamiliar territory while struggling to hang onto the familiar people they hold most dear.

The best short stories make every word count.  These are among the finest.


Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

Nine Stories
J.D. Salinger

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury

The Lovely Lady and Other Stories by D.H. Lawrence

The Lovely Lady
D.H. Lawrence

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris

Holidays on Ice
David Sedaris