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What makes a good short story?

By David Almond, short story writer & novelist

Short stories move quickly. Every word works. Nothing is flabby or loose. The language is specific rather than general, concrete rather than abstract. Short stories do not refer to a world: they present a world and make us experience that world. They show us things rather than tell us about things. Short stories are not neat little assemblies of beginnings, middles ad ends. Short stories often move cinematically, taking us abruptly from scene to scene. Short stories focus closely on their subjects, but they imply and suggest a whole world of experience. Short stories are broad, not narrow, in their effect.The plot can be minuscule. 

The short story does not deal in earth shattering events, except in showing how those events affect intimate human lives. The short story writer understands those things that really keep us awake at night: global warming, the nuclear threat, poverty perhaps. But more powerfully: a nagging memory, the crack in the bedroom ceiling, the ten pound note that we lost, the way that boy/girl turned away from our smile. The short story is intimate. Short stories do not depend on twists in the tail, cop-out endings. The end might be left hanging. 

There is not a pre-determined short story form. Every story is an experience that draws the reader quickly into its world. Stories are about secrets, lies, hidden things that might be exposed, disguises, little searches and excavations. They are about journeys, quests, discoveries. Short stories work on our senses. We taste, hear, smell, see, touch the story’s fictional world. Strong stories are strong on naming: they do not say flower, they say what kind of flower. Short stories do not trade in loose adjectives or empty adverbs. They depend on the stronger effecct of nouns and verbs. Stories are living things, elemental things, among the most important things in the world. In a short story, we can hear the echoes of fairy tales, myths, legends, jokes, the Bible, the Arabian Nights, the stories told to us by grandmothers, toddlers, mad uncles, the stories chanted around fires in the Ice Age Cages. 

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