The short story is characterised by its singularity:
- a single dominant character is confronted with
- a singular dominant problem or challenge for which there is
- a single dominant outcome
After studying thousands of short narratives, I’ve identified five basic story patterns or ‘story shapes’, which I exploit regularly for my own writing, and use successfully with students at all levels. The following categories are not scientific but they serve as useful ‘handles’ for approaching the writing of short stories and appreciating how different types work.
In the encounter story, the ‘protagonist’ is confronted by another character, or situation that shakes up her/his everyday routine. That protagonist must engage with that new situation because suddenly, unexpectedly, something important is now at stake. Anton Chekov, the Russian short story writer draws heavily on this type of story in a large number of his works. It is worth reading The Chemist’s Wife, or his most famous story The Lady with the Lapdog, with the above notion in mind. Many of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are about traumatic encounters. It is a very powerful, widely exploited story type which I also turn to when writing longer narratives, especially when I wish to embark on a deep exploration of my characters and their relationships. Two examples of encounter stories in my own work are A Different Ocean and Tell No One About This – the title story in my most recent collection.
I define classic stories as narratives that end with the defeat of the antagonist or ‘enemy’ after a period of ‘struggle’. Young writers and children in general, readily understand this story shape because of their exposure to it from a very young age, i.e. the fairy tale type stories they see in films, or which are read to them by adults (Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood… the works of writers like Roald Dahl, and so on).
Simply put, the pattern of a classic story is as follows: after a series of threatening, insufferable experiences, a brave but vulnerable character finds a way, in the end, to overcome the powerful ‘baddie’ or evil force that is keeping her/him oppressed.
A variant to the classic story is the inversion story, where the struggle is essentially about power and control. Patrick O’Brian uses this approach to devastating effect in the short story Samphire, where a timid, psychologically abused wife turns the tables on her husband and, in the end, becomes the one who holds the power while her husband is reduced to an almost childlike vulnerability.
The UK’s most commercially successful long-form fiction writers (including J. K. Rowling, Philip Pullman and J. R. R. Tolkien) exploit the classic story shape because it is so powerful, universal and appealing.
Very good writing can be generated in a classroom by drawing on this understructure where – metaphorically speaking – students are tasked to put a character up a tree (the initial situation), set the tree alight (the danger or threat the character faces) and let their character get out of the burning ‘tree’ by way of a series of attempts of which the first few fail, and the final desperate attempt succeeds.
This type of story features in short fiction which leans more towards the ‘literary’. They tend to focus on the inner drama of a character who – after being confronted with a dramatic situation – learns something new and important about self or others.
A story that immediately comes to mind is Night at the Ford (The Penguin Book of Contemporary South African Short Stories) where a business woman from the city gets stranded in a freezing, desolate part of the countryside and knocks on the door of a tiny house belonging to an elderly couple. In the morning, she drinks their coffee, then – still in city mode, her attitude detached and transactional – she digs into her purse and hands the old couple money which they refuse. It is only then she notices that the tiny house consists of a kitchen and the bedroom that she had slept in. She wonders where the old couple stayed during the freezing night. She is now forced to recognise her own insensitivity and selfishness, and understands that some things – like generosity and self-sacrifice – cannot be paid for with money.
Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin presents us with an older brother – a teacher – who knows his younger brother as a drug addict and jailbird. He attends one of his younger brother’s blues sessions for the first time and is struck by the beauty of this young man who is clearly a superb musician and is deeply loved by the people who come to hear him play. Some writers call these ‘epiphany stories’ – where a character goes through a deeply personal and transformative experience and emerges from it modified.
The isolated moment
Portrayal of a brief, intense experience where the point and the power of the story lie in the depiction of the experience itself and its impact on the individual in the end: a child seeing the ocean for the first time, a person’s first intense experience of love, or grief, or betrayal or unbridled joy. Ted Hughes’ somewhat unsettling, The Rain Horse, is a good example of such a story, as is John Steinbeck’s, Breakfast. One of my stories, Bird, sits very consciously on this story shape.
The parable-type story is strongly associated in the West with Franz Kafka. It is usually very short and rich with symbolic meaning and has the qualities of a puzzle. It is an old universal story type that works well with teenagers when they are challenged to work out the meaning – singularly or in pairs – and then share their conclusions with the rest of the class. In this context even their wildest interpretations can be deemed correct.
Can a single story possess the characteristics of more than one story type? Yes, it can, and often does, but the type of story it is, becomes evident by what the writer chooses to emphasise and amplify.
Jacob Ross is a novelist, short story writer, editor and creative writing tutor. His crime fiction novel The Bone Readers won the inaugural Jhalak Prize in 2017. His literary novel Pynter Bender was published to much critical literary acclaim and was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Regional Prize and chosen as one of the British Authors Club’s top three ‘Best First Novels’. His latest book is Tell No-One About This, a collection of stories written over a span of forty years, including from Song for Simone (1986) and A Way to Catch the Dust (1999) and more than a dozen new ones. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has been a judge of the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize, the Olive Cook, Scott Moncrieff, The Commonwealth Short Story Prize and Tom-Gallon Literary Awards. Jacob is Associate Fiction Editor at Peepal Tree Press, and the editor of Closure, Contemporary Black British short stories.
For more information about ‘Teach Like a Writer’, please visit this page.